This is part 3 of a series on the Mt Tambora eruption and how it shaped the world into the Victorian age. Part 1 dealt with the eruption and immediate impact. Part 2 turned to the famines in Ireland, and the near collapse of the British food supply almost leading to a real revolution. If you haven’t listened to those, I would suggest you go back and have a listen to them first.
For the United States, the period after 1812 was a time of reflection and growth. War with Britain had been partially successful. The population was growing and new lands were being brought into production. The political system was becoming increasingly mature and disputes between the Federalists under Hamilton and John Adams, and the Democratic Republicans were at least fading to a more workable level. They were even able to get Congress to establish a Bank of the United States. The population was like most countries, basically agrarian. 80% of the population involved in farming, usually supplemented by home industries like cotton weaving, barrel making, smithing and others similar activities. The main cities were on the east coast and they held only around 7% of the population. None of them were as large as London or Manchester and all had exceptionally primitive sewage disposal systems. There were signs of the growth of domestic manufacturing at a more professional level, and the invention of the steam ship by Sam Fulton in 1807 was beginning to point towards greater industrial progress. American science and education were also beginning to be come well established and respected.
Ironically much early American climate science was about deforestation causing temperature rises; a well understood phenomena today. Some New Englanders even worried that they would lose the brutal winter cold that they felt made them tougher than the Europeans, but temperatures began to decline from 1812 onwards. The growing season in 1815 was not good, and Canada also had some heavy crop losses. This is important as it weakened the resilience of farmers. Still they had a relatively mild winter and all seemed on track for a better 1816. When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, the fall out devastated climate patterns around the world. The young nation was about to be hit in 1816 with catastrosphic climate change. To the north in Canada, Quebec City was hit by a massive 5 day snow storm on 12 April 1816, and Albany New York was buried. The disruption continued as far as Ohio.
Still, it seemed a freak event. Then May dawned and with it, a polar vortex inspired winter returned. Albany was badly hit and so was New Jersey. Even Virginia and Tennessee were struck by cold fronts, killing cotton and other crops. Ice an inch thick formed in rivers and streams in Maine. Vermont had snow. Settlers heading westwards to Pennsylvania had to dress in their winter clothes.
June brought wild swings in temperature. Dartmouth College recorded a sweltering heat, with some thunder and overnight rain. But it was followed by wild swings in the jet stream. This disrupted the polar vortex. As it swung south it formed a U bend around Eastern America, which let artic cold air to flow down from Northern Canada as far as Carolina. When the cold air hit the warmer New England fronts, powerful storms were produced. This caused on a knock on effect, blocking and disrupting various weather systems, which trapped extreme weather conditions like snow storms in place.
On 06 June 1816 Quebec was hit with a brutal cold, turning the incessant rain storms into snow. Temperatures dropped so low that birds fled from local forests to seek shelter in the warmer cities. Thousands died. Newly sheered sheep froze. In Montreal, the press advised poor farmers to plant potatoes and share spare seed with less fortunate neighbours. Some desperate Vermont famers tried tying the sheered fleeces back onto sheep to protect them, but it was hopeless.
Just as in Britain and Ireland as I explained last episode, the fragile agrarian societies were facing a disaster on an enormous scale, but were too technologically undeveloped and organisationally unsuited to respond effectively.
Even being indoors didn’t mean being warm. At an inaugural address in Concord delegates suffered cold hands and feet even inside. As they left, strong gales and snow nearly overturned carriages on the bridge, and when they reached their hotel, their rooms were freezing despite the fireplaces. Boston was hit with 40oF temperatures and snow. The beautiful Catskill Mountains so beloved of Thomas Cole, finest artist who has ever lived, and whose paintings are the summit of human civilisation, were buried in snow.
The ground froze nearly everywhere and frosts hit crops hard even in Massachusetts. and Manhattan. Near Salem travellers remarked on icicles forming, and forests frozen with frost. Remember this is in June. It might sound normal for winter, and I bet subconsciously a few listeners have forgotten this is summer we are talking about. Some desperate farmers built fires in their fields to keep crops from freezing.
Now I’m giving you a lot of verifiable information here. Plenty of newspapers, official records and diaries all bare this out. These were mostly written by people who will almost never starve in a famine, even if they have to pay much higher prices. Thomas Jefferson, Sir Robert Peel, President Monroe, the Trustees of Dartmouth College, John Quincy Adams were men who bore witness to suffering, but were still some steps removed from it. What we are missing are the lived experiences of those who didn’t write. We can catch glimpses of the desperation, but I’m betting these are nothing compared to the suffering of the most isolated settlers and poorest farmers who didn’t leave us accounts. How many suffered and died alone in the cold. Their farms long since swallowed up into the wilds again. Maybe just a ruined wall sticking up from the forest floor is a final mute testament. Can you imagine the horror? It is like something form Game of Thrones. Seeing Winter coming and knowing you don’t have enough food in the good times, let alone now to survive this. Seeing your children slowly starving to death in front of you as you try to hack some weeds from the frozen ground to boil into a soup. Some turned to faith, but for others well they took the traditional human response. They began to emigrate. Humans in general will always either seek to improve conditions if they can, or leave if they can’t, and if those aren’t possible then they try to tough it out.
One newspaper heart breaking said [QUOTE] the very face of nature still appears to be shrouded in death like gloom, and as she weeps, which well she may, for the barrenness of her fields and for the chilling blasts that whistle through her locks from unpropitious clime, her tears freeze fast to her cheeks as they are seen to flow. [END QUOTE]
Wells froze, crops died. Yields were massively down from highs of up to 40 tons down to around 5 tons on some farms. Most Americans were deeply religious, perhaps more so than the British of the period. Many interpreted prosperity as a sign of God’s favour and his sustaining hand, whilst misfortune, disaster and storms were signs of divine wrath. Layered on top of this were countless local superstitions that were set out in Almanacs, pamphlets and books. Pennsylvanian farmers had often expanded their famrs to meet European demand for grain in the Napoleonic Wars, often going into great debt. It was a situation almost identical to the problems faced by Irish farmers. Religious revivalism on many of the frontier communities intensified as the weather worsened. There was a break in the weather in some area’s in June so farmers decided Spring had finally arrived and tried a planting. This involved using wooden ploughs on water logged fields. Backbreaking work.
As June turned to July, wild swings in temperature left Virginia in a drought much to Jeffersons annoyance. President Madison was still not unduly alarmed. Perhaps if the weather was finally turning, a decent late harvest would see them through. The newspapers in Maine continued to worry, but famine seemed to have been avoided. Attention turned to the bitter political election to replace President Madison, one that was won by James Monroe. He was not a popular choice, with criticism of both his honesty and his intellect in comparison to his predecessor.
By August farmers were planting late crops and planning for a later harvest. They were on the cusp of a recovery. Pennsylvania and New England as a whole we’re optimistic despite a few snap frosts. Most people were actually praying for rain to break high temperatures. Almost as if it was a scene from a film, at noon on 20 August the skies darkened and a massive storm hit Amherst in New Hampshire. In the next few hours temperatures plunged up to 30 degrees. The snows and frosts returned with vengeance. The stormed travelled as a harbinger of more despair. The country froze from Connecticut to Maine, from Kentucky to Ohio. Pumpkins, cucumbers, Indian corn, vines and potatoes died off in droves. For New Hampshire this was dire news indeed. The state was bankrupt with only 100 dollars in reserve. The Governor was reduced to begging banks for loans to tide them over till tax season but he was rejected. Only a federal bail out to fund the militia saved the state. In desperation, the governor was reduced to using the local prison population as slave labour for construction projects to repair lost roads and bridges.
To give you an idea of how dire this really was for people, remember that 80% of the population of New Hampshire were subsistence farmers. These farms weren’t anything like as productive as in the Connecticut river valleys. These were rural farms in hilly country that were hard to work even in the good times. The farmers relied utterly on supplementing their crops with the income from cattle, plus the family would do some piece work for things like textiles to add a little extra income on the side. Farmers were now in a real bind. Their crops were dead, but their cattle needed the hay and grain which had been lost. The industrial revolution hadn’t reached New Hampshire, so if you were a subsistence farmer, that was basically always going to be your life. Like it or not. Subsistence meant subsistence, as food storage options were limited. There weren’t railways and extensive food reserves that could be shuttled around. Costal regions could at least turn more heavily to fishing, but other area’s faced genuine famine. New foods were sort out; porcupine or wild pigeon.
Not that things were much better in the South. Even in South Carolina, frosts returned. Some local people noted that it didn’t matter at this point. There was nothing left to kill off. Wiser observers began to note that the weather would cause emigration. Jefferson was carefully observing the weather and was convinced that famine was inevitable. The bitter Presidential election campaign dragged on.
Perversely though some area’s remained drought hit for months, even suffering forest fires and record low river levels. They finally had their prayers for rain in Virginia answered, only for it to turn into a deluge that continued for days and caused massive flood, sweeping away fields. Costal area’s all received a massive battering from the storms. Other area’s still hadn’t seen any rain, just snow for months.
With brutal inevitability another blast of freezing weather and snow swept in on 10 September. Mountains in North Vermont were again buried in snow. Farmers began pulling up whatever was left in the ground, ready or not. In Quebec, the situation was desperate almost beyond description, almost as bad as in Ireland. Some local famers were reduced to trying to eat wild herbs.
The horror just didn’t end. I could list more and more weather disasters like this throughout the USA in September 1816. Floods, droughts, forest fires, frosts, dry wells, frozen ground, rotten crops, thunderstorms, hail, and snow. Maine farmers faced the awful choice of whether to eat next years seeds to survive, possibly leaving them to starve to death over winter and spring with nothing to plant or feed to cattle. One famer is recorded as having killed all his cattle and then committed suicide. In religious early C19th America this was shocking. Merchants did their best to throw gasoline on the fire by eagerly exporting expensive food supplies to the desperate French and the West Indies, despite the urging of newspapers for them to be patriotic and keep the needed food back to feed starving Americans. Letters crossing the Atlantic made it clear that the whole of Europe was also in the grip of a full blown crisis.
As in Britain the doctrine of free market economics had a powerful grip on the ruling class, who often refused to arrange any kind of aid or intervention. Many Governors thought prayer was the only real remedy.
Now though came the moment were we see the major impact of this climatic event on history. What I’ve described to you has been awful. It has hopefully driven home the impact that climate change can have, and the way a single eruption can affect the world. Now though we are about to see the impact on history. Just as we saw in previous episodes that it had triggered emigration in Ireland and nearly kicked off a revolution in England, in New England the damn was about to burst. Huge numbers of farmers decided enough was enough. The dam was about to burst and the first great migration west was triggered. The cry went up “Ohio or bust.” Illinois was also sparsely populated and advertising for settlers. After the war of 1812 the US had been actively cleansing these area’s of Native Americans, stealing land and selling it to white settlers.
The trickle soon became a desperate flood. By October 1816 40-50 wagons a day were leaving New England for Ohio through Zanesville alone. Several thousand were thought to go through Zanesville and many met with misfortune. Emigrants on the trail passed the wreckage of wagons and saw the corpses of horses and oxen strewn along the way. Imagine just how hard this decision was to take. To take a family with young children into utterly unknown territory. The gender roles of 1816 would have put the main responsibility for the decision, and the success of the venture, on the man’s shoulders. Women would have a say, especially if the couple were a happy and well matched partnership, but ultimately everything would rest on the mans skill and judgement. The psychological pressure on everyone in the family must have been immense. A difficult journey could doom them before they arrived. The man’s death or serious injury would leave the woman and any children in a dire predicament. In an era where physical strength counted immensely, especially when undertaking a hard physical journey, the loss of the man would leave the others with few options. Much employment would be closed to women either due to social prejudice or the resulting lack of experience. There were tough frontier women who were every bit the equal of any man, but they were the exception. In general the women would be faced with giving up, or attaching themselves to other families or taking employment in the nearest town, but this was becoming thin on the ground. Children would add to the heavy weight the adults had to wrestle with. One witness described a settler passing through New York from Maine, who was heading to Tennessee. The witness said he was
[QUOTE] somewhat depressed by fatigue, drawing behind him a hand cart containing all his effects, chattels and provisions, and two children of age too feeble to travel; behind followed the elder children and wife, bearing in her arms a robust infant seven months old. [END QUOTE]
They had covered 400 miles of the journey and still had 800 left to go. Think about what that really means. Put yourself in their shoes if you can. Conditions were desperate enough that a walk of 1,200 miles with at least 5 children from that description, seemed a good idea. The only provisions those that you can physically carry. Your children are utterly dependent on you. No one will really provide help if you live or die. A walk might sound ok, but it is day after day, so none of the family will be earning wages unless they stop to labour or trade, but thousands of others will be doing the same. Every day’s walk requires calories not just to move but to provide the energy to carry the food that provides the calories to carry the food. Some shocked bystanders donated 20 dollars to the struggling man with the hand cart, so this family were lucky for the moment.
Clothes were often highly unsuitable for conditions by todays standards. Thin cotton shirts perhaps with knitted waist coats, a coat and an overcoat of wool or tweed, maybe knitted mittens and a fur hat. The mountain men would be far better off. Skilled hunters and trappers dressed in animal skins and furs with huge bearskin or buffalo skin overcoats and thick fur gloves and hats meant that they could weather the terrible conditions in the Catskill Mountains. Armed with Kentucky Long Rifles they were well equipped and were highly sought after guides for richer emigrant wagon trains. Tough men who would have legendary names on the early frontier learnt their trade from the early mountain men who survived this winter.
Farmers who remained in New England watched starving wolves come closer, taking cattle and perhaps who knew, one day them. Some famers ate the stems of potato plants, wild pigeons or hedgehogs. Vermont switched on mass to surviving on mackerel. The dreadful conditions triggered immense religious revivalism.
Some Native American tribes also suffered. Many sold surplus grain to white settlers in good years. Crop losses of up to 90% reduce them to having to ask churches and charities for help. It is really difficult to know how hard the Natives were hit by this event. They had the advantage of deep local knowledge and immense wilderness skills, plus they had far lower population numbers to support. But they would have found hunting in these conditions extremely hard, especially when combined with the crop losses and not had some of the technologies available to the incoming American settlers. They would also have faced immense racism and violent skirmishes with the newcomers.
Emigration from New England didn’t ease the pressure as boats of desperate Irish immigrants arrived fleeing the human catastrophe unfolding in Ireland that I talked about last episode. Many starved to death in the streets. Not all died though. Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick arrived in 1816 from Ireland, and he would go on to found the famous Rocky Mountain Fur Company and run with legends like Jim Bridger, Jed Smith and even Kit Carson himself. Without the famine, who knows if the great trapping and raiding into Missouri and the other amazing events with the Comanches and the Crows in Utah, Wyoming and so many other places, would have unfolded as they did.
The out going President Madison gave a curiously upbeat final annual speech to congress on the state of the nation. He lauded the government finances running a fiscal surplus, spoke approvingly of the tranquil life on the frontier, encouraged the founding of a national university and the building of more roads, plus paying down the national debt. He did open the speech with remarks about the weather, expressing his disappointment, but confident that the USA as a whole had a varied climate and plenty of food so things would be fine. He mentioned that the lack of food much encourage [QUOTE] an economy of consumption more than usual [END] but that overall [QUOTE] they could give thanks to providence for the remarkable health which has distinguished the present year. [END QUOTE]
In effect the US government had adopted basically the same attitude as the British government under Lord Liverpool, but had actually taken fewer practical steps than the British had in Britain or as Sir Robert Peel had as governor of Ireland despite the far worse situation.
There had been no summer. Soon October passed and winter came. With it came more snow and storms. To some it felt like the end of days had arrived. Conditions worsened and by May 1817 the wave of emigration reached immense levels. 260 wagons travelled west through the Genesse Valley in just 9 days. This means that the eruption of Mt Tambora had triggered a wave of mass migration that would reshape the American colonies into the journey from the east coast to the west.
This was a hugely diverse group of migrants. Families, single farmers, religious communities, displaced southerners and ambitious adventurers, even a few new messiahs. Maine alone lost between 10-15,000 people to the emigrant trains heading west, whilst in Vermont some towns lost nearly their entire young population. The Smith family from Vermont didn’t go all the way west, instead they settled in the Genesse Valley near Palmyra, where a few years later in 1820 Joseph Smith Jnr would, according to him, meet God and Jesus who warned him of Church corruption, and who would later send the Angel Moroni to show him the location of the real gospels written on golden plate. These, the angel said, were buried in nearby hills. Smith recovered them and wrote them as down as The Book of Mormon. He went on to found the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints in 1830, also known as the Mormons. Without the Mt Tambora eruption and climate change it is unlikely his family would have settled in that valley when they did. So the eruption is in part responsible for creating a new religion.
Populations in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana skyrocketed. They went from struggling to attract people to seeing massive population growth, but although the climate was wonderful for agriculture, it was a harsh frontier life. There were no real industries to support settlers. Families might be so isolated they wouldn’t see another human for months. Stone was also scarce so building materials were difficult to find. The frontier life was extremely isolated and hard. Self reliance would be an increasingly needed talent, which would feed into the later mindset of the expansion into what is called the Old West.
Whilst the United States reshaped itself, and Britain and Ireland drowned in excessive rainfall, Europe was suffering. Belgium was underwater. But hardest hit of all was central Europe. Here in the darkness, and the rain, and the starvation would find fullest artist expression with the birth of the truly gothic. The heart of this complex journey in the storm wrecked Switzerland was George Noel Gordon, better known to history as Lord Bryon. In 1816 a group of people were staying in a Chateau on the southern edge of Lake Geneva. They had a terrible journey to get there, and were now basically stuck there because of the weather. If you had to pick a group of people to be stranded together, you really wouldn’t want to pick this particular mix. At its heart was the 28 year old Lord Bryon. Chased out of England, dogged by the incest scandal, debt, a failed marriage, affairs, drug addiction and a reputation as one of the finest poets to ever hold a pen. This included an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, who was married to Lord Lamb better known to Victorian fans as Lord Melbourne or Dear Lord M. Lord Byron did leave a legitimate daughter behind in England; the great Victorian Ada Lovelace – the worlds first computer programmer
Byron was accompanied by Percy Shelly, whose poetry and wit he greatly admired, and Percy’s lover Mary Godwin aka Mary Shelly. There was also the wannabe poet Dr Polodori, who was professionally jealous of Lord Byron’s attachment to Shelly’s work over his own. Thrown into the mix was Claire Clairmont, half sister of Mary Godwin, who was pregnant with Lord Bryons child. Byron and Percy made various trips and visited the local social scene. The weather alternated between driving rain, flooding and damp, depressing fogs. Then came the famous night, where they challenged each other to write a ghost story. Bryon had moments of inspiration and wrote some of his best poetry, but didn’t seem to take the challenge too serious. Mary though was working hard on the definitive Gothic novel, based off her experiences with Galvanism. Dr Polodori was edged out of the company, and wrote a story called The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stokers Dracula. So whatever his companions thought of him, he did have some talent. It is worth a read – it is free on Project Gutenberg and in pretty good in places; although the ending is frankly dire.
Claire Clairmont was not a welcome presence. She begged Bryon to see her, but he wouldn’t do so alone. She was instead forced to settle for copying drafts of his latest works ready for his publisher. In the background the situation across Europe deteriorated. Switzerland had to ban the export of food, and even forbade baking white bread to save flour. Daylight was sometimes only a few hours a day. Crops rotted, potatoes were ruined in Germany. Unlike in Britain, where the free market was expected to solve problems by the invisible hand, in Prussia and Austria, massive relief efforts were underway. As a side note, relief efforts were also underway for the Prince Regent, whose overeating and overindulgence was causing his bowels to be inflamed.
Eventually the Shelley’s and Claire Clairemonth would return to England in autumn whilst Bryon drifted to Italy, had affairs with an Italian Countess, wrote Don Juan and renewed his friendship with Dr Polodori. Meanwhile Switzerland teetered on the brink of disintegration. It was the worst hit country in Europe. Thousands of beggars roamed the country. The individual cantons began to barricade themselves from their neighbours and prevent the sharing of food. Many of the women and children begging were described as looking like walking corpses. Famine was affecting up to 20% of the population in some areas. Desperate Swiss authorities encouraged people to leave the country, just as Peel had done in Ireland in 1816. Civilisation itself seemed to be on the brink of collapse. Some of the desperate populations of Bavaria were reduced to boiling weeds. As merchants in Laichingen rationed relief supplies and loaned money from the poor relief funds so they could buy cheap property, it seemed like society itself would break down. 26,000 people died of famine in Eastern Hungary alone. Germans often fled to Russian or the United States.
Yet as decay and destruction gathered around them, it was a great time for art and literature. The artist Turner drew great inspiration from the stormy skies and strange sunsets, Jane Austin wrote but her health declined. She would die in July 1817. Schubert produced dark master pieces like Der Konig in Thule. Bryon continued his poetry. The Russian Mystic and Writer Baroness De Krudener predicted the end of days and encourage the people of Switzerland to rise up and take from the rich to survive. Percy Shelley’s estranged wife Harriet committed suicide. Within 3 weeks Percy and Mary married. Claire gave birth to Bryon’s child, but Bryon refused to accept any responsibility. He would drift around Italy, writing the 4th canto of his masterpiece, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, eventually taking custody of his child before having her shut up in a convent where she died. Mary would never forgive him for this. He was eventually swept up in the fight for Greek independence. He died of fever aged only 36. Mary was still inspired by the weather, the bleakness, the death and finished the ultimate Gothic master piece – Frankenstein. She would continue to write, even after Percy was drowned in a storm at sea in 1822. Fortunately before he died, Percy was able to give us the epic Ozymandis. Romanticism was to become a serious cultural theme through the Victorian era, especially in Britain and Germany. Whilst romanticism started in the C18th much of its finest flowering was born as a result of the weather of 1816.
The years of 1816-1817 had rocked the world. I could go country by country and list more and more tragedies, famines, and deaths. It was in a way like the black death. A trigger for change through horror. The vibrant art reflected this, but it wasn’t triumphant or religious. Instead, the Gothic, Romantic and Bryonic do not express heroes or heroines succeeding against the odds. They don’t require nobility, common sense or even morality from the characters. Romanticism is about the relationship with nature and the triumph of passion over reason. The erratic over the sane and the feeling over the intellect. It is a rejection of mere pastoralism or arcadianism. A happy ending is definitely not required. Dr Frankenstein is not in anyway a moral or sympathetic character. He is driven to rebel against the natural order in frantic hubris and obsession. Much of the back drop of the novel is against the dire weather in Switzerland, and you can see why given where and when it was inspired. It includes heavily the motif of fire and Prometheus. Dr Frankstein is a warning against obsession and attempting to challenge the natural order of things. Romanticism might be about connection with nature, but it had a strong strain of doom and catastrophe running through it, alongside it’s inspirational elements. It was in my view a reflection of the authors subconscious feelings of helplessness and doom in the face of the climate. In a way it became part of the DNA of Victorian culture, and a counterweight to the belief in progress and modernity, or increasingly linked to Romantic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism. Romanticism would therefore be a huge part of the Victorian world, often blended with the Gothic as Mary Shelly had done in Frankenstein.
Mt Tambora had shaken world. In its art, its literature, its society, its geography and its science. The Victorian age couldn’t have unfolded how it did without this great event. Join me next time as we turn back to England, where if Waterloo was its greatest triumph, a new event was to be its Nadir. It is time to witness the massacre of Peterloo.
EP014 DARKNESS FALLS: MT TAMBORA PT2
The episode you are about to hear is part 2 on the eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815, and its immense effects around the world that lingered long into the Victorian period. If you haven’t listened to pt 1, please listen to that first. The ash and dust from Mt Tambora had spread out around the entire world by winter of 1815. Last episode I described the enormous dust cloud in the pacific. I made a mistake though when I got the location of Pittsburgh wrong, which is in Pennsylvania. Well done to eagle eyed listener Jonathan for spotting that. I apologise to all you lovely listeners who live in either Pennsylvania or Ohio. Both states are lovely, and one day I would love to visit both for beer and burgers. So here’s hoping.
I just wanted to mention before we get going that the show now has a new logo and artwork. Don’t worry, I haven’t been bought out by Disney as a new addition to the Marvel Universe. It is just that I wanted something that was a bit brighter and a bit more focused on Victoria. I’ll miss the Lady of Shallot as she got us on the air, but I love the new look and owe Rob at Totalus Rankium an immense thank you for the amazing design work.
Also a huge thank you for the most recent iTunes reviews by Tigpack, Holh123 and Ms Pod-a-lot. I really love getting these reviews, and they help new listeners find the show. If you want to say a thank to me for making the show, well head to iTunes, make sure you are logged in, search for the Age of Victoria Podcast, and click on Ratings & Reviews. Then click on Write a Review. Then tell the world what you think.
Play show introduction including contact details.
[QUOTE] I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went – and came, and brought no day.
Men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into selfish prayer for light.
Lord Bryon “Doom” 1-9
The climate chaos in Europe in 1816 inspired Bryon to write those chilling words. Now everyone would have to deal with the consequences. They are almost to vast to be believed at first. When talking about climate change, sometimes the small numbers can mislead people into thinking that the impact is also small. The world can seem so vast and immutable that the idea a minor thing like a volcano in South East Asia could change world climates and up end civilisations seems too fantastic. That’s because the human mind is very geared to the immediate, the fight or flight response. We aren’t very good with the idea of system changes and disruption.
The year of 1816 is a powerful illustration of the wild effect small changes in climate numbers can have. It was unfortunate that the eruption occurred during a very vulnerable period in Europe. The continent was already experiencing a cold decade since 1810, and previous volcanic eruptions had exacerbated this cooling trend. If these eruptions were like putting too much gasoline or petrol on the BBQ, well the massive Mt Tambora eruption was like having the air force drop napalm on it. The scale of the eruption was cataclysmic. The release of aerosols disrupted the critical North Atlantic Oscillation and the Jet stream changing the weather in Europe immensely.
One immediate impact was to strengthen the polar vortex. This is a common outcome of disruptions to the jet stream. Some listeners might recall in 2017-2018 North American temperatures plummeted as a result of just such a strengthening of the polar vortex caused by disruptions of the jet stream. Likewise a weakened jet stream has been responsible for the incredible hot summer in Europe & the UK in 2018. The model of how changes to the jet stream affect weather is well established and you can see it in both the 1815-1816 event and the more recent polar vortex events caused by climate change.
Now you might be jumping up in your seat saying “come on, how do we know what the volcano did to temperatures.” Well in the first place we are really, really lucky that weather observation was a great passion in the C18th and C19th. Thomas Jefferson was an obsessive observer of weather, even taking observations on 4th Jul 1776, a time when he was rather busy! The Royal Navy kept meticulous air & sea temperature records, along with notes on the weather & cloud formations. Even during battle no interruption to recording was permitted. Their study of the trade winds and climate theory intensified throughout the C19th.
Many, many Americans like Timothy Dwight and many Europeans across the continent religiously recorded temperatures and weather patterns. Ironically there was ongoing debate in New England about whether the climate was warming up and whether deforestation was to blame. Observers noticed the effect of deforestation on the soil and how it increased the problem of drought and water run off, with drier soils expected to be warmer therefore creating a feedback loop. The basics of climate change were being understood in the earl C19th but a lot of the links and main causes were still unknown. The jet stream wouldn’t even be discovered until after WW2. Modern scientists have measured the aerosol remnants of the eruption in ice core samples and lake sediments. They have also recorded the plummeting temperatures in tree ring growth. As solar dimming went into effect around the world, land then sea temperatures dropped. Sunsets became increasingly red or orange and strange, enough to show up in analysis of art work of the period. People became fearful of portents. There is even a popular supposition that the eruption might have influenced the weather the day and night before the Battle of Waterloo, destroying Napoleon’s last fading hope of victory.
Before we look into events on the ground, we need to have a quick think about famine. There’s a fairly fashionable view that famines are only caused by political mismanagement or bad economic decisions, and that there is always enough food to feed people. It is just that bad economics means people can’t afford the higher prices of food in times of scarcity. What you need to remember about this idea, which I am not challenging, is that it is mostly applicable to post industrial societies where human mismanagement is the trigger for most famines. In the pre-industrial world and the Victorian era, absolute food supplies could be wiped out. Excessive rain, flooding, drought, volcanoes, plague, deforestation, desertification and inundation from the sea could mean that absolute food levels declined precipitously.
In Britain, the great struggle of the day in 1815 was dealing with the post Napoleonic War economy and the increasingly dysfunctional Royal Family. On a continent wrecked by war, a series of poor harvests had made the populations immensely war weary and fragile. Now millions of soldiers were being discharged and the civilian authorities would have to integrate them back into economies that badly needed rebuilding. This was difficult as the ruling classes mostly had little to no interest in the welfare of the general population provided the overall wealth of the nations territories was maintained. Free market economics was the ruling philosophy in Britain. The market would determine people’s monetary worth. Most educated people thought government interference in the economy would always make things worse.
Britain as a whole enjoyed a good harvest in the Autumn of 1815. It was the calm before the storm. Winter in England seemed colder than usual. March saw some recovery with excessive rain, then April had some snows preventing travel in places. This delayed the growing season, but wasn’t extreme. Scotland had a miserable, freezing winter and lots of storms. Even in May conditions didn’t seem to improve in Scotland. Across Europe in May snows fell. Farm land across the UK remained unproductive and the weather threw great, great lashes of snow, sleet and rain at farmers. The Royal Cornwall Gazette raised concerns about farmers having to give up on some crops Unfortunately the government was led by the mediocre Lord Liverpool, with Lord Castlereagh periodically usurping his meagre authority. King George III descended further into blindness and irreversible madness, whilst the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) became increasingly fat, extravagant and despised. By March 1815 the Prince Regent had wracked up personal debts of over £1,480,600. A sum of money that was simply mind boggling at the time. For comparison, the HMS Caledonian, one of the finest First Rate warships ever built for the Royal Navy in the Age of Sail, cost £96,381 to build and another £6,711 to fit out. In other words, the Prince Regents debts could have covered the cost of a world class battleship and had change to perhaps build a supporting frigate and operate them both. His debts were nothing like as much in the national interest either.
There’s great quote here about the state Britain was in in 1816
[QUOTE] Lord Liverpool entered 1816 facing a host of problems as Britain made the transition from war to a peacetime economy. A trade recession caused in part by the termination of wartime contracts forced numerous businesses to cut wages or lay off workers and others to declare bankruptcy. The ranks of the employed swelled further as the government rapidly demobilised the army, throwing more than a third of a million men into the labour market [END QUOTE]
It was in this atmosphere that debate raged over the corn laws. They were designed to keep grain prices high by preventing imports. They weren’t meant to punish the poor per se; instead the idea was that they kept British farms in production. The corn laws prevented importation of grain unless British grain prices fell below a certain level. Essentially acting as a subsidy for farms that wouldn’t be able to stay afloat without them. The knock on effect was that the poor paid a higher price from grain, and as grain was a huge portion of their entire spending, the high prices were regressive and punitive. Still rural farms were major employers, and the main food source. The British government had to keep them in business. The problem was that the effect was far beyond keeping them in business and far more about lining the pockets of already rich landowners.
Riots broke out in Bridport, Dorset and then in Bury St Edmunds. Demobilised soldiers in East Anglia were hit by the collapse of the old cottage based spinning industry as a result of the industrial revolution, and also a massive collapse in wages, as well as sky rocketing food prices. In Norfolk nearly 1,500 people armed with improvised weapons raised flags saying “Bread or Blood” before looting shops and farms for food, as well as attacking local gentry who had to call out the militia. The town of Ely was also rioting for food. Eventually the local magistrates had to call out not the local militia but the Yeoman Cavalry supported by profession troops from the Royal Dragoons. Ominously for the authorities, the riots barricaded themselves into the tavern and it appeared shades of the French revolution were in danger of sweeping across the country. The troops had to storm the tavern, killing one rioter. 80 were arrested, and 5 were hanged.
Onto this dangerous situation of desperate hunger, unemployment and wage collapse, the government response days before the Bridport riot was to vote to spending tens of thousands of pounds on wedding gifts to the Prince Regents daughter Charlotte. One land owner spoke for many of the ruling class when he grumbled
[QUOTE] The main root of evil is in the taxes. [END QUOTE]
There was no thought really from the establishment of any form of poor relief. Some of the population were getting utterly desperate, roaming the country for support, or hoping the Prince Regent would take up their cause. The Prince Regent was told by Parliament that the government had already done everything it could, and the only real remedy was to give things time to improve. His reply spoke volumes, as he lamented
[QUOTE] the distresses of some classes of the people and trusted that they would bear them with fortitude and energy. [END QUOTE]
That’s a hard message to hear from a man of incredible wealth, immense debts, and who was so fat he had to wheeled in a special chair up a ramp to mount a horse.
It was onto this fragile country with a dysfunctional government and despised monarchy that the climate devastation was about to really bite. As wet, cold spring turned into a wet cold summer, even by English standards, some of the press began to worry about the next harvest. They couldn’t know it, but wild swings were occurring with the jet stream, causing mass climate destabilisation across Europe and Northern America. It rained almost daily, and even in mid July storms brought more rain and hail, and even total darkness in parts of Scotland.
Some of the smarter economists like Thomas Maltheus or David Riccardo knew that the situation was teetering on the brink of disaster throughout the United Kingdom, but couldn’t think of real alternatives to the hands off approach of the government. By the end of July the Anglican Church was officially praying to God for relief from the weather. Rain, hail, landslides and flooding continued to ruin crops across the entire UK and Europe. Shockingly to many English tourists, they found the situation in Europe was even worse than in the UK. France remained under occupation, straining food supplies to breaking point, and it was in post Napoleonic political crisis. Food riots broke outing France and Belgium. This crisis of 1816-1817 has been called the last great substance crisis of the Western World. It was the last real time in Europe when there was an absolute lack of food on a massive scale.
The knock on effect on British trade was catastrophic. 2/3 of jobs were lost on the London docks. 10,000 servants were reported as out of work. If the official response was poor, at least some Dukes, senior churchmen and reform campaigners began meeting to arrange private charity relief. The need was desperate. In one parish alone 800 men queued for meagre relief supplies of bread and cheese.
Remember this kind of suffering can’t be waved away. A person whose farm had been devastated, and whose tenant farmer employer had left him unemployed had no where to turn. The situation for the causal labourers was even worse. There were thousands in this situation. Eventually hunger and starvation will override any kind of obedience to law. Imagine you were a magistrate and you tell a man who is watching his family starving to death in front of him that it is fine because it would be immoral for the government to interfere with the economy or for him to steal money from the rich aristocratic who is spending it on wine and lace. That’s not how humans work. Eventually there comes a snapping point. It had happened in France, and Britain teetered on the brink. Let’s step back and ask why the ruling class responded this way to the crisis. Leave aside the moral consideration of what kind of person would let people starve to death if they could help stop it, especially with little real impact on themselves. Look instead at the incredible shortsightedness of it. What is it that made the ruling class in Britain so secure in the idea they could continue as things were? I think a lot of it comes down to importance society of the time placed on hierarchy. The rigid world view that had been internalised at all social levels. The British establishment world view couldn’t flex to view poverty as anything but a moral failure rather than a result of massive structural inequalities and devastating climate change.
At the end of August more snow was added to the misery of the almost constant rains sweeping mainland Britain. Even the normally chirpy establishment newspaper the Times begin to allow hints that all was not well, but still maintained the line that the wheat harvest had been bountiful. This was either deluded or dishonest. Fake news of the highest order. The government duly attempted a coverup, by suppressing reports into crop yields and conditions as they were so alarming. Crop after crop was lost, and any hope of a good late harvest evaporated. Canterbury alone suffered economic losses of around £70,000.
The philosopher James Mill wrote to the economist Riccardo
[QUOTE] the corn here is absolutely green, nothing whatsoever in the ear; and a perfect continuance of rain and cold. There must now be of necessity a very deficient crop, and very high prices – and these with an unexampled scarcity of work will produce a degree of misery, the thought of which makes the flesh creep on ones bones – one third of the people must die – it would be a blessing to take them into the streets and highways, and cut their throats as we do with pigs.” [END QUOTE]
The effects of Mt Tambora were beginning to be felt in Ireland as early as January 1816, when ferocious storms wrecked the Sea Horse transport ship in Tramore Bay killing 363 people.
Tragically agriculturally fragile Ireland was hit with devastating force. I do want to emphasise that when I’m talking about Ireland now, I’m giving you a really brief skim of the surface. C19th Irish society, geography and economics were very complicated, and are often indulge far too much the subject of historical stereotyping or romanticising about a huge subject.
80% of the rural population of Ireland were incredibly poor tenant farmers and labourers, who even in the best years hovered over the brink of ruin. Marginal farms had been brought in to production by the richer members of the tenant farmer class, and the Anglo Irish gentry during the boom of the Napoleonic Wars, which had now gone bust. Almost all of Ireland was dependent on land wealth in some form; whether rich or poor, everything came back to the land. The gentry owned it, and took out huge loans on it, whilst providing jobs and local spending. The middle class did the day to day tenant farming and the great mass of the population did the labour. A vast gulf existed as the Anglo Irish landowners often only spoke English whilst the main of the population spoke Irish. Each feared and hated the other to a degree.
I want to remind you though not to read back from the Great Famine of 1845, also known as the Irish Potato Famine or the Great Dying, and this event. They were two very different events with very different causes. The Irish potato famine hit an already fragile society on its main crop which had come to be over relied on by the very poorest of the population, whereas the the famine of 1816 hit the entire of Europe across every kind of plant and animal farming, hitting all classes. In normal times, Ireland was prosperous agriculturally and didn’t have an unusual history of famines compared to the rest of Europe. The effect of the Great Famine sometimes distorts the history of Ireland and makes it easy to assume that the whole history of Ireland was one of poverty and starvation. It wasn’t, and was regarded as agriculturally rich.
Still the reliance on the potato meant that populations in Ireland had increased rapidly by 1816, yet society rested on a fragile base. The land, even in good years, could only just support the growing population as land became increasingly subdivided between growing families. The potato allowed a family to live on a small area of land, focusing their diet on potatoes, cows, chickens and pigs. This increased reliance on the potato even more at the bottom of society, and stored up trouble for the future. It wasn’t the primary cause of the famine in 1816. The massive population kept wages low as well. As America became more prosperous, Ireland exported less to the USA, leaving it achingly dependent on trade with Britain. The recent act of Union hadn’t helped. When Ireland became part of the United Kingdom, the Irish Parliament was eventually abolished and Irish MP’s were granted seats in the Westminster Parliament. Whilst some in Ireland were initially excited about this, since it gave them access to the ruling Parliament of one of the most powerful nations in the world, it had some huge draw backs.
Firstly Irish MPs were hugely outnumbered, so although they could now raise Irish issues on a larger stage, they had less voting power to make changes. Secondly the Irish were seen as culturally and socially distinct so they couldn’t operate the power and patronage back channels to circumvent these problems like the English. Thirdly it meant that local understanding and connections were lost. Fourthly, Ireland was now part of the same domestic market as the rest of the UK. Its textile workers and farmers were in direct competition with their fellow workers on mainland England (Scotland and Wales had different economies so they weren’t in the same markets).
Parts of Ireland did have an industrialising urban base similar to England, but it couldn’t easily compete with the established large scale mills in the North of England. There were also substantial numbers of Irish cottage based weavers who were facing the same problems as their English cottage based weaver counter parts.
Also please put to one side the idea that Ireland was overpopulated. The idea of over population is a difficult one. It isn’t a case of having too many people or too many babies. It depends greatly on how much food can be produced, the energy needs of the people, and wider economy. The rural Irish population was considered backwards by many tourists, and standards of housing were dreadful in comparison to more prosperous towns, but it is interesting to note that the Irish population as a whole was regarded as well fed and healthy. Reliance on the potato earlier than in mainland Britain, meant that overall calorie intake was quite high and compared favourably to the rural poor in England. The Irish History podcast has looked at this in a lot of detail, and we will do a deeper dive in our future episodes.
What is striking though is just how fragile the Irish economy was, how dependent it was on a few key area’s, and how dysfunctional the political structures were especially with absentee landlords. This was made worse by poor and repressive government from Westminster. The overall impression of Ireland in 1816 is one of a socially unsettled country that didn’t have the economic and agricultural resilience to cope with major shocks.
The enormous social tensions in Ireland meant that the British authorities were mostly focused on keeping order. Crime and disorder became a self fulfilling prophecy. There had been some recent violent uprisings, and the British viewed them as treasonous or at the very least criminal. It is worth baring in mind that during the Napoleonic Wars, some members of Irish society had formed alliances with the French to assist invasions, so the British viewed the loyalty of some of the Irish as highly suspect. The main establishment authorities, including men like Robert Peel, came expecting to find rampant crime, found it, assumed that this was the cause of the problems in Ireland and then focus on crime. This increased tensions, fuelling the cycle. Innate distrust and prejudice against Catholics only made things worse, whilst Irish gangs rioted for good reasons and bad, often robbing and intimidation the law abiding. British government reprisals could be extremely brutal and occasionally indiscriminate, worsening relations. The British monarchy was in an especially difficult position when it came to Catholic Ireland. The four King George’s and William IV were all from the House of Hanover. The claim of the Hanoverians to the English throne was based on the explicit claim to be protestant monarchs not Catholics. It was linked to the claim that the only other royal house that could have claimed the English throne, the House of Stuart, was illegitimate because it was Catholic. That might sound trivial to us, but it had huge implications. If the Hanoverians supported Catholic rights or emancipation in Ireland they were undermining their own claims to the right to the English and Scottish thrones. After all, if Catholics were entitled to equal treatment and freedoms, then surely there was no basis for the House of Stuart not to have retained the throne and that would make them the ruling house. This was a real bind for the conservative upper classes, including Sir Robert Peel.
In Ireland, men like Sir Robert Peel were too detached from the reality on the ground for the bulk of the rural Irish population. The rain was decimating crops, with over 143 days of rain in row totalling 31 inches. Daniel O’Connell, the nationalist was horrified at conditions, and even the gentry were facing ruin.
The climate disruption triggered one of the great demographic earth quakes in history. Irish people who could began the first major emigration to the United States, but also to Canada. To Peel’s annoyance it was the richer protestants who left. He would have preferred it to have been from the mass of souther rural poor to ease the pressure on food supplies and hopefully reduce death rates. He had no idea of the terrible situation in the USA and nor did the emigrants. Sadly for many of them, fleeing didn’t bring safety. Supplies would sometimes run out on the voyage to America, and many destitute people who did reach New Jersey or Philadelphia starved to death in the streets. The poorest of the population could often only afford the cheap tickets to Liverpool, and the mass emigration of the Irish to the British mainland caused immense tensions as they almost inevitably ended up as labourers, competing for already scarce jobs. (Dr Majorie Bloy )
By September and October, full reports of the utter humanitarian crisis in Ireland were beginning to hit home with Peel and the London Press. County Kerry, County Mayo, County Westmeath, CountyFermanagh, County Antrim and County Down all reported massive flooding, wiping out what was left of the crops and potatoes. Some fields near Drogheda, were so flooded, they were colonised by ducks swimming on them.
Ok, if that isn’t shocking enough, think about this. Most of the rural population in Ireland depended on cutting peat and turf for fuel, shelter and building materials. The rain made it sodden and useless. What meagre food there was couldn’t easily be cooked, and there was no fire for warmth. Peel now knew he had a massive disaster on his hands, but as he said
[QUOTE] I fear we have melancholy prospects before us and are threatened with calamities for which it is impossible to suggest a remedy. [END QUOTE]
It is easy to assume that Peel was blind to the problems in Ireland and came with the common hostile attitude held by most of the ruling class, but he actually commented that he regarded the Irish in a positive light, with immense potential for development. His correspondence and replies in Parliament were often extremely positive in around 1816. He said in a reply to Sir J Newport in the House,
[QUOTE] that it is impossible to see them without admiring many of their qualities. [END QUOTE]
he went on to list them as being faithful, honest and chaste in marriage. He always commented on other occasions about the problems of Ireland being what we would call structural; he was scathing about the absentee gentry and felt the lack of them living in Ireland, but collecting rents from estates they owned there, was holding back the economy, taking money out of the country, and weakening the talent pool that would normally be the back bone of the local administrations and court systems. He also attacked the free press in Ireland, which he viewed as the main cause of many of the problems in the country, since it corrupted what he viewed as an honest population in his opinion. His view was wholly paternalistic. He was a Tory after all, but it was based on the assumption that a local land owning gentry should actually be local, bound to the community and incentivised to help it prosper. He wanted greater protection for some key industries to allow them to develop, and he was highly reluctant to sanction military deployments. There’s an interesting quote from him in a debate in Parliament – the Army Estimates Feb 1816
[QUOTE] The house must not suppose that the government listens to every hasty application from magistrates for a military force. Such applications often spring from groundless fears; and the answer invariably returned to them is, that it is impossible to attend to every individual who makes them. [END QUOTE]
I’m telling this so you understand that Peel was a clever, complicated person. He wasn’t a repressive tyrant, nor did he want to commit some kind of genocide in Ireland. He did come to the view that only law and order maintained by the army would keep the country from collapse. This was a dangerous course though. The Protestant army in Ireland had engaged in some brutal repressions of the local population, and had also suffered some brutal reprisals or random attacks. The use of the military in Ireland was never going to help improve social tensions or help with necessary reform. Still put yourself in the shoes of the officials in many rural area’s. There’s no refrigeration, no trains or trucks to move food around. No mass reserves of food, no real canned goods or rations. The main bulk food stuff that was relatively non-perishable and transportable ws grain and perhaps rice. These weren’t going to be available at short notice, and even if they were the expense was huge and there was no real way to distribute the food around the countryside.
Administration remained primitive and used parchment and dipped ink pens. News travelled slowly in rural Ireland, even by the standards of the C19th. Even the best of administrations was slow, but Ireland in 1816 was a society with deep structural problems, rife with social and religious tension, deep issues in its government and suffering periodic repression from the Westminster Government and British army. It is easy to blame the authorities, but as the old saying goes, try walking a mile in their mochasins. When mass climate disruption hits, human societies can suffer seriously. Whilst the easy view is that the authorities are always at fault, the reality of system wide shocks is far more complicated, especially in a country with the difficulties faced by Ireland.
As if Ireland hadn’t suffered enough though, with grim inevitability, disease in the form of Typhus struck in September. It would kill tens of thousands of Irish. Combined with the famine over 100,000 Irish would die. This was tragedy on an enormous scale. The fear and helplessness goes beyond easy understanding. The Typhus epidemic would continue until 1819. It is ironic to note that when the great famine struck Ireland in 1845, Peel was Prime Minister. Again he was responsible for dealing with a colossal crisis in Ireland, and again he was initially unaware of the terrible scale of the humanitarian disaster unfolding, but he would eventually come to destroy his party and government to repel the Corn Laws in part to help the victims of the great famine.
In October northern England was again hit with ferocious floods. East Riding, Berwick, and numerous other towns, were flooded with bridges washed away and fields inundated. Labour was so cheap by now farmers could take their pick of workers, but with no crops to harvest there were no jobs. Cattle couldn’t be fed, so were sold off at rock bottom prices threatening the ability of farmers to keep enough livestock for the following year.
At the very top of society though, Lord Liverpool and his government were feeling fairly happy. They were pleased to see revenue from taxes rising, and in accordance with the classic economic theories of the times assumed this meant people were obviously buying more goods, so the economy was growing and therefore overall the economy was actually healthy and wealthy. Low interest rates, good gold reserves and plenty of credit and relatively low debt levels made him feel even more confident. Any problems with the lower class weren’t the problem of the government; it was for the invisible hand of the market to sort out. Private charity, not government aid was viewed as the only possible response; the job of government was to keep spending and taxes low. Government aid was viewed as encouraging idleness.
It strikes me as strange how these arguments get rehashed and go in endless cycles throughout history. Still, it seems an immense stretch to say in hindsight that the poor were at fault for the massive climate disturbance in 1816. Bread prices were soaring. People across the country were desperate in unimaginable ways. Food riots broke out again and again. In hard hit Wales, strikes and riots broke out. Magistrates called for troops. Eventually as local yeoman were not enough, veteran cavalry from Waterloo were deployed in Newport to crack what seemed to be a rebellion. Still the government did nothing, convinced that this was revolutionary agitation rather than sign of distress. When 8,000 people gathered at Spa fields to talk about petitioning the Prince Regent in November the temperature dropped below freezing. Snow returned. The protesters railed against high taxes and ominously the Tricolour flag of revolution was seen flying, liberty caps were mounted on pikes, and cries went up of marching on “the British Bastille” of Coldbath Fields Prison. American Ambassador John Quincy Adams was shocked to find people starving in the street. Lord Castlereagh, star of our episodes on the Congress of Vienna, had his home stoned. The Prince Regent refused to meet MP’s petitioning for reform and Lord Liverpool refused to assemble Parliament to debate. A mob formed and marched on the Tower of London, but was dispersed.
This was the perfect excuse for Lord Liverpool. He summoned Parliament in January and whipped up fears that there was a revolution, so strong repressive legislation was needed to preserve national security. Spy networks were set up, meetings of more than 50 people were required to obtain prior permission, a gagging act was brought in and ancient rights of Habeas Corpus were effectively suspended. Meetings were broken up. Cavalry were deployed enthusiastically. Quick trials and hangings of suspected rebels became common. Transportation to Australia was increased. With great reluctance though Parliament was forced to enact schemes to provide loans to employers to create jobs usually though public works like road building, canals or land improvements. The response was electric and take up immense. It wasn’t enough to force Lord Liverpool to take the situation in Ireland seriously, despite Peel’s efforts to provide food to the poor and also keep a lid on serious riots. Peels attempts to import grain failed miserably, so he finally tired of waiting on Lord Liverpool. He set up his own distribution system run by 5 protestants, 2 quakers and a Catholic. This was shockingly radical for the time especially from a Tory. He created a small scale financial fund based on the same model as the British schemes. It remained a drop in the ocean, especially against the background of mutual hostility and establishment prejudice.
Gradually the year of 1816 ended and in 1817 the climate, although harsh, began to stabilise enough for a more normal harvest. Times would remain bitterly hard for the bulk of the working population of the United Kingdom and reform would be strongly resisted by the ruling classes. The next 15 years of British history was defined by the war for social reform and democratic reform. This is the backdrop Victoria herself would grow up in, and attitudes to the monarchy were deeply shaped by this disastrous period, especially the immense unpopularity of the Prince Regent (later King George IV). Without Victoria, and more especially without the brilliance of Prince Albert, it is likely the damage to the monarchy done in this period would never have been repaired and perhaps Britain would have joined the continent in the year of revolutions in 1848.
Join me next time as where we turn our attention across the Atlantic and discover that in America there was no escape from the icy grip of the Year without Summer.
Setting the scene
Imagine a tranquil pacific heaven. Sandy beaches, warm ocean and gentle breezes. This is in many ways as close to paradise as humans have come. Plenty of fish in the seas. It is a world away from the horrors of Europe in 1815. A Europe where the Napoleonic Wars were entering their final, lethal stages. The battle for the Enlightenment seemed on a knife edge in Europe, and the seeds of it were clinging on in the fledgling United States. Everything seemed to revolve around people in Europe if you take the narrow view, one that is heavily centred on Western civilisation.
Jane Austin published Emma, the War of 1812 officially ended, the British conquered Ceylon, countries in Europe were being created and breakthroughs in technology were being made. All in all, it would seem like the old school of history, the view of the age of man shaping the world was particularly applicable.
In Java in April 1815, one particular man Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Lt Governor was going to have a very, very bad day even in paradise. In fact he was going to have a series of them. They would sharply crush the notion that something as insignificant as mankind was the cause of the greatest events in 1815. Napoleon might have restarted the wars, and appeared to shape the course of history, but in fact nature was going to do something spectacular and heartbreaking.
Raffles was a really interesting guy. He was an aristocratic and had been a key player in the conquest of Java from the French. He was appointed Lt Governor during the 45 day campaign to take Java from the French. He was clever and able to negotiate local politics but at the same time he led military actions against native Javanese who resisted. He crushed the Javanese Princes and looted a royal archive. He also seized nearby territories for the British in case Java was to be returned to the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars ended. In this respect he appeared much like the typical image of a heartless European conqueror. He had another side though; he was interested in history, arranging the cataloguing of numerous historical sites of importance in Java. He instituted farming reforms, and made modest attempts at curtailing the slave trade although he owned slaves himself. In his future governorships he would go further to abolish slavery entirely as well as writing a history of Java and going on to found Singapore. He would write a book on Zoology and be instrumental in the founding of London Zoo.
You can see in him a prototype for many of the Victorian empire builders who often curiously blended extreme military hawkishness with immense intellectual drive and curiosity.
On the 05 April 1815 Mount Tambora, located in the north of Sawumba Island near Java would begin the first in a series of mega eruptions. These would have devastating impacts not just on the local area, but eventually around the world.
Whatever our modern views on colonial military conquest, it is important to recognise the sheer talent of men like Raffles. Yet during the eruption of Mt Tambora, it is painfully clear how little power or influence even a man of the energy and intellect like Raffles could actually have.
Between 05 April 1815 and 10 April 1815, Mt Tambora would erupt three main times. These eruptions would be some of the largest in recorded human history. They were on a scale that can only be realistically be described using language like biblical, or cataclysmic. There’s a great article in Wired magazine that gave a fantastic scientific summary of the sheer energy involved. I’m going to quote it now, but you can find it online on Wired magazines website.
[QUOTE] An explosive eruption like Tambora releases huge amount of energy. A rough estimate for the 1815 event is ~1.4 x 1020joules of energy were released across the few days of eruption. One ton of TNT releases ~4.2 x 109 joules, so this eruption was 33 billion tons of TNT. That’s 2.2 million Little Boys (the first atomic bomb). The US uses about 1.17 x 1020 joules of power each year (at least in 2007), so Tambora, in the span of a few days, released about the same amount of energy as the consumption of the entire United States in one year (or ~ 1/4 of the entire world’s annual energy consumption!) If you want to compare it to other geologic events, the 2004 Indonesian earthquake that generated the Boxing Day tsunami releases ~110 petajoules of energy (1015joules). That still leaves Tambora ~1200 times more powerful than that M9.3 earthquake. [END QUOTE]
What do those numbers mean? Honestly I don’t know. The human mind can’t really cope with that kind of scale. We can’t grasp it. Put it this way, the explosions of Mt Tambora could even be heard as far away as 1,615 miles in Sumatra. That’s like an explosion going off in New York City that could be heard in Denver Colorado. Scientists can use the Volcanic Explosivity Index to record how explosive an eruption is. This scale is logarithmic, running from 0-8. That means each step up the scale is ten times more powerful than the last.
So let’s put Mt Tambora on the scale and relate it to a few eruptions you might have heard of. The basic on all the time eruptions in Hawaii that you might have seen beautiful pictures of, they clock in at 0-1 on the scale. The Soufriere Hills Volcanoes in Monsarrat are on the 3, whilst stepping up to 4 includes major eruptions like Eyjafjallajökull (2010) in Iceland which was a huge media event, it ground all the planes and was on the news and I’m sure we all remember it. These are big, pretty disruptive events, but that only got up to a number 4 on the scale. Stepping up to 5 now includes terrifying events like Mt Vesuvius and Mt Saint Helens. If you remember the Mt Saint Helen’s eruption it was staggering. I can still remember the impression it made on me as a young child watching news reports.
Moving up another step to 6 gets to Pinatubo, which cooled global temperatures by about 1 degrees and also includes Mt Krakatoa. Ok, I think you are beginning to get an idea now because now we are stepping up to 7, which includes monsters like Mt Tambora. You have not experienced anything like this in your life time and you should be profoundly grateful. Tambora is the only confirmed VEI 7 eruption during human recorded history.
There’s a Minoan eruption of Thera in the middle of the second millennium BC may have been, and it is suspected, although not proved, that the eruption of Samalas volcano in 1257 was also a VEI scale 7 eruption and it might have helped trigger the mini ice age. The reality is then that no human being on Earth today has experienced anything as powerful as a VEI 7 volcano, and Mt Tambora is the only confirmed VEI7 incident in recorded human history.
A VEI 7 eruption is capable of changing the climate on a global scale. It can end civilisations. Raffles and men like him would be in the middle of observing and trying to pick up the pieces. Then the changes would spread around the world. We will look at the wider impact next episode. These would include the spread of Cholera, changes in art and literature to reflect mass famine, increased migration in the United States, deaths world wide, flooding and devastating changes to weather, including reduced sunlight for months. For now, we are going to look at the eruption and its immediate impact in more detail.
The amount of material blasted out into the air caused a zone of darkness covering a radius of (373miles) 600km. If you are struggling with that distance, imagine the distance from New York City to Pittsberg Ohio or from London to north of Glasgow in Scotland. Then turn it from day time to night time and leave it like that for two whole days. Now try to imagine that you have no idea how volcanoes work, or any kind of modern science. No electric lights or backup generators. No satellites or radios or reserve communications. Imagine instead that you live on an island in the pacific and there is a massive noise then darkness falls. If you are educated like Raffles you might look for natural causes but you would be wholly ignorant of almost the entire scientific knowledge you need to have an understanding of what is happening. Even though the great Benjamin Franklin had recently proposed that volcanoes might affect the weather in some, fully understanding of what a volcano does and how it works was over a century away. For the uneducated and for the bulk of the native populations in the local, this would be framed in more religious terms.
Remember that beautiful scene I told you to picture at the beginning. Well it was gone; blasted out of existence by the titanic forces of Mt Tambora. Erased. Volcanoes have a number of destructive characteristics. There is the initial explosion, which contains immense energy. This not only forces magma to the surface, but also rips rock from the volcanic chambers and surface free. There is also the massive devastating pyroclastic flows: waves of superheated gas containing gas, ash and rock that can travel hundreds of kilometres an hour. Often people nearby have only a few moments before they get hit and killed. Humans are simply too fragile to survive close to a VEI7 explosion. Even those further away are in terrible danger. The immense heat and energy can cause hurricanes of ash and debris. Toxic gases can kill thousands, and the thick clouds of ash can become so heavy that breathing is impossible, or people & buildings can be crushed under the weight. If near water, devastating Tsunami’s can be created. In the case of Tambora, one travelled 500km, finally hitting the East coast of Java with a 2 metre high wave.
There is also a following wave of rock, ash and pumice that can rain down for days. This choking ash can mean that plant and animal life is swiftly killed, with rivers being turned into ash filled soup. Within 24 hours the ash cloud thrown up by Mt Tambora covered an area the size of Australia. By the end of the year, the ash would have risen and spread out into the stratosphere to form an invisible but powerful veil of ash around the entire planet. This would reflect sunlight, and drastic cool global temperatures.
We were lucky, if that’s the right word, to have witnesses like Raffles to record the event. Perhaps at another time in human history we wouldn’t know about it except from the geological record. Even lacking the most basic equipment, these observation accounts are invaluable and also chilling. For example Raffles says he was informed by an employee that
At ten, P. M. of the 1st of April, we heard a noise resembling a cannonade, which lasted, at intervals, till nine o’clock next day; it continued at times loud, at others resembling distant thunder; but on the night of the 10th, the explosions became truly tremendous, frequently shaking the earth and sea violently. Towards morning they again slackened, and continued to lessen gradually till the 14th, when they ceased altogether. On the morning of the 3rd of April, ashes began to fall like fine snow; and in the course of the day they were half-an-inch deep on the ground. From that time till the 11th the air was constantly impregnated with them to such a degree, that it was unpleasant to stir out of doors. On the morning of the 11th, the opposite shore of Bali was completely obscured in a dense cloud, which gradually approached the Java shore, and was dreary and terrific. By one, P. M., candles were necessary; by four, P.M., it was pitch-dark; and so it continued until two o’clock of the afternoon of the 12th, ashes continuing to fall abundantly: they were eight inches in depth at this time.’
Perhaps you think of ash as a bit of dust. A minor inconvenience. Well when it comes to Volcanoes, it isn’t. A volcanic ash cloud can contain
– Carbon dioxide
– Sulfates (sulfur dioxide)
– Hydrochloric acid
– Hydroflouric acid
As well as various minerals and fibres. All of these can cause horrific lung damage.
Perhaps you could visualise it more like this. Imagine you go and light five giant BBQ’s in your back garden. Now wait until the heat has died down enough that the coals are grey and just about approachable. Now get inside a small shed say. Then have two friends tip the whole lot onto your head, and they then shut you inside. Picture the heat, the fact that you can’t go anywhere, the ash fills your eyes and burns your lungs. Every breath you take is congested and a fiery agony. Imagine the pain and twisted horror as you realise there’s no escape and no help. This is the world of the survivor in their last moments. If you are far enough away, then it is a rain of cold ash. That brings darkness like Raffles described.
12,000 human beings died in the initial eruptions in ash falls, pyroclastic flows and clouds of superheated gas up to 1,000oC. Some of their carbonised remains were buried under the lava.
In C19th Java and the Pacific, there were no international rescue services that could help. No cars or planes to evacuate. No aid workers being flown in. No dried food supplies and water tankers. No emergency generators. Nothing. One of the most devasting natural disasters in human history was striking at a time when humans hadn’t even fully mastered primitive steam engines in any but the most basic ways.
On the back of this were the Tsunamis and flooding triggered by the eruptions, and reaching up higher into the atmosphere was a layer of ash that would bring darkness to the region.
Now I really, really need to remind you that the whole world in the C19th was basically either agrarian, pastoral or hunter-gather with little in the way of food or water storage as we would understand it today. So that meant most food production was highly localised. Disruption to local food production, even for a single season could result in real hardship, even if the wider country the area was located in was unaffected; local famines could and did erupt savagely. The area’s covered by ash were absolutely out of production. Death by starvation was absolutely guaranteed for a large number of the survivors. There was nothing they could do. They were doomed. That’s hard to get your head round today. There are no accounts from them. I can only picture some of the ash covered survivors walking around in a daze, blinded and slowly starving. Unable to find water or relief, the ash blighting their lungs.
Raffles dispatched Lt Philips to try to see what was going on and give aid. He discovered emptied villages, and desperate people reduced to eating plant stems and palm leaves.
The Rajah of Saugar told Lt Philips during the initial investigations
[QUOTE] Between nine and ten p.m. ashes began to fall, and soon after a violent whirlwind ensued, which blew down nearly every house in the village of Saugar, carrying the tops and light parts along with it.
“In the part of Saugar adjoining [Mount Tambora] its effects were much more violent, tearing up by the roots the largest trees and carrying them into the air together with men, houses, cattle, and whatever else came within its influence. This will account for the immense number of floating trees seen at sea.
“The sea rose nearly twelve feet higher than it had ever been known to be before, and completely spoiled the only small spots of rice lands in Saugar, sweeping away houses and every thing within its reach. [END QUOTE]
An entry from the British Naval Chronicle 1815 July to December vol 34 shows how dreadful the local situation was. This is a bit of a long quote, so bare with me
[QUOTE] Eruption of Mount Tomboro. Extract of a Letter, dated the 29th of May, 1815, from Batavia, from a Merchant of that Place.
“We have had one of the most tremendous eruptions of the Mountain Tomboro, that ever perhaps took place in any part of the world; this mountain is situation on the island of Subawa, and is distant from Batavia not less than 350 miles. We heard the explosions here distinctly, and had some of the ashes. It was totally dark at Macassar long after the sun was up; and at noon, at Sourabaya, the sun succeeded in enlightening the good folks so as to allow them to see some yards around; the ashes lay at Macassar, which is 250 miles from Sambawa, 1 1/2 inches deep. Captain Feen, of the Dispatch,and Captain Eatwell, of the Benares, who have visited the island since the eruptions, both declare, that the anchorage is much changed, and that they found the sea, for many miles around the island, so completely covered with trunks of trees, pumice stone &c. as he was told, that a village was inundated, and had three fathoms of water over it. Great numbers of the miserable inhabitants have perished, and others die daily. The crops of paddy (rice) have been utterly destroyed over a great part of the island; so that the situation of the unfortunate survivors will be really pitiable.” [END QUOTE]
Lt Philip would state
[QUOTE] the extreme misery to which the inhabitants have been reduced is shocking to behold. There were still on the road side the remains of several corpses, and the marks of many others where they had been interred: the villages almost entirely deserted and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having dispersed in search of food.” [END QUOTE]
As the locals reeled, and the Europeans struggle to think of a meaningful response, the cloud of ash rose inexorably up into the atmosphere. For some of the immediate local tribes, the even could only be understood in religious terms. The further away from the eruption, the less knowledge there was of it.
The local impacts would be devastating, causing immediate deaths of around 70,000 people from starvation or lack of water on top of the 12,000 that had been immediately killed in the eruption. Some villages literally sank. Cattle and horses died in droves, and rich rice fields were destroyed. Temperatures plummeted and many people were plunged into darkness. Officials reported having to light candles during the day to work. Tsunamis wrecked costal regions. Worse though, the immense disruption to the South Asian Monsoon would cause famines and create the conditions in India for the rise of the great scourge of the Victorian age, and its most famous disease – Cholera. A disease that will continue to wreck havoc, even today.
The massive famines in China weakened government control and led to massive rebellions against the Qing dynasty. The knock on effect of this, it has been suggested, was to allow Yunna to become a Chinese narco state. It would play a central role in global poppy production, in turn influencing Victorian Britain’s Opium Wars.
Sadly most of the sources from this period are from the more insulated aristocracy. As you can see from the quote of the Raja, even the rich suffered of course, but we don’t have the same local accounts from famine stricken peasants or workers in South East Asia as we do of the Irish population during the terrible Irish famines.
People around the world would be struck by freak weather in ways they couldn’t understand or deal with. Ireland, Switzerland and America were extremely hard hit as we will see next episode and the one after. During these episodes on Mt Tambora the climate disruption we will see the massive changes it wrecks on human civilisation and how it changes the very direction of history itself. Join me next time as we see what happens to the world as Summer itself fails, and the weather seems to dive into insanity. Kings, emperors, peasants or soldiers. No one, and no where would be untouched, and the impact would have far reaching consequences for the shape of history.
Congress of Vienna in 1814.
The show you are about to hear is part 2 of the Congress of Vienna. It won’t make sense if you haven’t listened to part 1. I know my shows are normally stand alones and can be listened to in any order but for the Congress of Vienna, like Waterloo, it had to be a multiparter. Now before we begin, I’d like to do a little community corner. This show is for all you listeners and I’m thrilled to have a lovely community like you. I want to say a huge thank you for the latest iTunes reviews. Play promo for the Pontifacts Podcast.
In December 1813, the British foreign secretary Robert Stewart, better known to history as Lord Castlereagh, had finally been forced to travel to Europe to cut deals with European powers to bring about the end of Napoleon. For years Britain had been seen as a financier and opportunist, despite having a significant force active in Spain and essentially clearing the seas of French shipping. Now Britain had to fully commit to the diplomatic war.
Metternich had badly wanted the British to get more involved in diplomacy and alliances. So Castlereagh did. He planned on re-organising the former Dutch Republic to suit Britain, and worked to get the Prince Regents Daughter Charlotte married to the son of the exiled ruler, William Prince of Orange. Then he planned to get the Prince recognised as the King of the Netherlands, which would ignore the longstanding Dutch Republican tradition, and also get encouraged him to take over Belgium as the French retreated. As Castlereagh said, it looked good on the map. He magnanimously declined the idea that Britain might want to annex Dunkirk for future naval use.
With that Castlereagh moved on to Frankfurt, having a dreadful journey and moaning about the conditions in Germany. He then moved on to meet Metternich. Arriving in Bale he found that the Tsar had departed, but had left instructions that Castlereagh was to meet him before anyone else. Castlereagh, as a British Foreign Secretary, was not going to take instructions from anyone besides the British government. He decided to see Metternich and drive a coach and horses through the formal protocols. The stark contrast between him and the European diplomats and rulers was immense. They were all dressed in highly elaborate military uniforms, aping the styles of Napoleon and the Tsars and Grand Dukes. Castlereagh was dressed in a blue civilian coat with ruffled braid and bright scarlet breeches. He looked, as someone observed, like a dandy footmen. This might have caused people to underestimate him. Castlereagh might have no European experience but he had plenty of political experience including being instrumental along with Lord Cornwallis of American War of Independence fame, in passing the Irish Act of Union which had unified the Irish and English crowns.
He and Metternich seemed to instantly click. Let the others babble and think themselves clever. He and Metternich were going to put themselves in the driving seat. In a private meeting he and Metternich decided the shape of Europe. They paused only briefly to let Castlereagh meet King Friedrich, then went back to deciding how and where millions of people would live their lives.
Well I’ve just thrown a lot of information at you there. Let’s just pause for a moment and think about the staggering implications. The way these men thought is very, very different from the modern idea of government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is very different from the American founding fathers ideal of that phrase. It boils down to a concept that we will see throughout the Victorian period; namely that the people did not have the right to decide the shape and state of their nation. Aristocrats and Kings might have that right by treaty or war. The idea that there was a popular will in Belgium and that the people living there should get to decide whether they were a monarchy or republic was deeply abhorrent to men like Metternich. This wasn’t because he was evil. Far from it. He wasn’t sitting in a secret lair in a volcano telling Mr Bond that the shark tank had been warmed up for him and he was welcome to take a dip. It was because Metternich believed that the old order of Europe was preferable to the chaos that came from the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity. Giving rule to the people would lead to chaos. From chaos would come dictators like Napoleon who would wage wars on unprecendented scale with nothing to check their ambition. It was easy for such men to fool the common people, because the common people were ignorant, idle, excitable and jealous.
I should point out that the claim that the majority of the populations of Europe were ignorant was not universal even in his own time. Still the claim that populations were ignorant is not entirely wrong, it is more incomplete and misleading. Most people in Europe were still illiterate and didn’t travel much so their world view and knowledge was intensely local. They were ignorant of a lot of the wider world. This was not because they were stupid, although many of the aristocracy would have said they were. Rather it was inevitable because universal education, and a mass market free press simply didn’t exist in the way it would in the mid to late Victorian era. Knowledge was concentrated in the aristocracy, and tiny but growing middle classes. I think that Metternich if challenged, would have said something like “well how is a peasant farmer who can’t read and knows only the gossip from the tavern and the sermon in the Church supposed to decide whether his government should adopt a trade treaty with a foreign power that required the surrender of territories and complex negotiations. It would be absurd to ask such a man, versed in the plow and the seasons, to give a considered and rational opinion on events that he can know nothing about and in which he has no training.”
This has been a long standing criticism of democracy and remains part of the core debate about representative democracies vs direct democracies vs constitutional monarchies vs more despotic regimes. It is an argument that would burst into flames in the United Kingdom countless times during the Chartist movement, the passage of the reform bill, the corn laws, voting rights for women and many other flash points. The idea that universal mass education, combined with scrupulous press honesty was the key to overcoming the problem was not widely recognised despite the efforts of some of the American founding fathers. The feeling that the people would become an excitable mob had been proved by the French revolution as far as the European ruling classes were concerned. The reign of terror and the horrors of Robspierre were fresh in everyone’s minds. The United States was still too new, too alien to look at as a valid counter example. The aggressive actions of the US against Canada which were one of the major triggers of the war of 1812, seemed to prove that the democracies were inherently warlike. This world view had also dominated Castlereaghs previous actions in Ireland and would do again with dire consequences.
Castlereagh set out Britains vision for the future of Europe. Metternich was in agreement, it jibbed neatly with his own visions and provided ample scope for the necessary wheeling and dealing to get an agreement. It also helped check some of the Tsar of Russia’s increasingly imperious demands. Castlereagh wanted
- A strong Holland to counter balance France.
- Antwerp to never be in French hands.
- The restoration of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies.
- A strong kingdom of Italy, that was free of French influence.
- In return Britain would give up all the French colonies it had taken, except Malta, Mauritius, Reunion, Guadalope and the Saintes Islands. It quite liked those.
- Britain would also return captured Dutch possessions except the Cape.
This would give Britain some of the absolute best naval bases around the world, especially when Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and significantly weaken France. All in all a good end to the war for Britain. But it would be incomplete to characterise everything Castlereagh did as being selfish or arrogant. His job was to represent Britain’s best interests and to do the best for her as he could, not to help the French. Like Metternich he was a reactionary, but only because he believed the old order was the best way of doing things for everyone. This isn’t surprising. He was an Irish aristocrat from an old noble family. His world view was shaped very much by his experience of growing up amongst the Irish nobility in Ireland and this would have shaped his views of the rural population. He wasn’t corrupt, or blood thirsty. His constant efforts were always aimed at making peace on the continent. He knew millions of people had died in decades of war and he wanted a better world. He just viewed that better world as coming from the past rather than arising from some kind of utopian reforms.
The slight difficulty was that the British, uniquely amongst the European powers, didn’t even recognise Napoleon as ruling France. They referred to him just as General Bonaparte. Metternich and many on the continent wanted a sensible peace, probably with France contained within her natural borders rather than her smaller artificial ones that existed pre-revolution. Britain though was like Russia. She wanted Napoleon destroyed. Russia had already alarmed the British by suggesting that the house of Bourbon shouldn’t be restored to France. Tsar Alexander felt that the Bourbon kings weren’t of sufficient quality, and perhaps the French throne should go to the ambitious French Marshal, the traitorous Bearnadotte. The Marshal was keen to be made king, strange for a man who had revolutionary slogans tattooed to his skin.
How on Earth do you square these circles? It was the job of men like Metternich and Castlereagh to try. Many of the opposition in the military simply wanted to march into France, burning, looting and killing. They had lost much during French invasions and wanted revenge. The problem is it becomes an endless cycle. You can always find a reason for revenge, for not making peace. There’s always this outrage, or that battle, or this murder and your side is always just bit more in the right than the other side, and you’ve sacrificed so much so surely you should honour the fallen and carry on the war. What’s that old saying of Batman’s “if you kill a killer, the number of killers in the world stays the same.” It’s why some conflicts in the world just keep going, almost generation after generation; the past becomes the dead hand clamped on the neck of the future. Castlereagh and Metternich were desperate to break this cycle. Worse for them, Tsar Alexander was experiencing a religious mania. He believed he had been granted an intervention by God Himself, compelling him to destroy Napoleon personally. Fanaticism was rearing its head.
Throughout 1814 the diplomatic whirlwind continued. The post Napoleonic world was discussed. Princes and Arch Dukes schemed. Metternich took mistresses, even at one point spending his time writing love letters to a less than constant mistress whilst his colleagues planned how to carve up Saxony and Poland. When one of his former mistresses became a lover of Tsar Alexander, the gossip round the city caused enmity and jealousy to flair up between the two. The hatred became intensely personal. Prussia schemed to acquire parts of Germany. Various Germans came up with opposing visions for Germany; some involving a grand unified Germany, others for increased power to various German regions. Marriages and alliances were formed and reformed as needed. In many ways it was the old order in full flowing. Let’s step back here though and look at this in at a more individual level. This whole situation was supposed to be about creating a fair and lasting political and social settlement in Europe. The lives of millions of people depended utterly on the outcome of these discussions, but it is clear that at least some of the key statesmen involved were letting their personal feelings run riot, especially over mistresses, even if it damaged themselves and their countries. A lot of this took place with a back drop of grand balls, great concerts and firework displays with extravagantly dressed servants and elaborate carriages. Great paintings have been made of these occasions. In many ways the Congress was more of a series of social events that were interrupted by some formal diplomacy.
What was going through their minds? Why were these personal feelings allowed to interfere so much? Was it a product of the culture of the aristocracies of the time. Where personal feelings and character could be as important to people as actual achievements? Talleyrand certainly didn’t fall into the trap of mistresses distracting him, although he was aggrieved when one of his threw him over for a dashing cavalry officer. Or was it that being aristocrats, they didn’t see a difference between the personal feeling and the public act? Was it a case of being just so self entitled that they simply didn’t care like many modern oligarchs and politicians? Or that they were in a bubble that meant they simply couldn’t see beyond their own lives except in the abstract? What did their staff think? Was this ivory tower group think? Once his ex-mistress had firmly rebuffed him, Metternich did eventually return to business. Still he retained a deep loathing for Tsar Alexander over the incident. Remember these mistresses were often powerful figures in their own right. Duchesses, or high ranking aristocratic girls. They are often mentioned and even well known in a way that modern pop stars are today. They seem to have enjoyed a notoriety that bordered on respectability. They clearly had enough power and agency to change relationships between powerful and dangerous men.
I’m telling you this, not just because it is interesting gossip, but because it is all too easy to over simplify when we look through the historical lens. We say things like “Well it’s strange that the Russians didn’t do x with the Austrians because it really was in their interest.” and then we go on to talk in these abstract terms as if a nation was a real thing with a single consciousness. The reality is far more complicated. Nations are basically a collection of impulses and culture, tied together under a political system rooted in its history. They aren’t a conscious entity and when we use terms like Britain or France, we must remember we are really just using a useful short hand. Looked at this way, it is clear how some of the strange decisions made by nations can be explained, once we root them in the mentality and actions of the individuals involved.
A lot of the tension between Austria and Russia was caused by Tsar Alexander and Metternich hating each other personally. Not that Talleyrand got on any better with the Tsar. The Tsar felt Talleyrand was a dishonest backslider, who quoted legitimacy and international law only as far as it suited him, which was entirely true. But Talleyrand was a smart political survivor. He was quick to play the Tsar off against everyone else.
There’s a great line in the Godfather novel about this. Michael Corleone is talking to his consigliere Tom Hagen. He says “Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell.” It’s a very revealing line. Throughout the book, one of the themes is “hey, its nothing personal, it’s just business.” What Michael Corleone revels in that line is a great truth; power is often intensely personal, even if you dress it up. By calling it business not personal the Mafia could claim to be a step removed. More rational, but that was just the window dressing. It illustrates why the politics of this period really did come down as much to the feelings of the men involved, because there simply isn’t as sharper distinction between the political and the personal as we claim.
Theses antics had not gone unnoticed. Many onlookers complained about the extravagance . One diarist wrote
[QUOTE] These sovereigns who were all brothers when it was a question of annihilating the power of Bonaparte, were apparently united only by necessity, for their own interests and not in the noble aim they proclaimed of bringing happiness to the nations. [END QUOTE] p332 Rites of Peace
In the background of this, a war ravaged Europe faced real questions about how to plant crops, raise cattle and feed itself generally. Armies had stolen food and burnt fields. Grain supplies and markets were disrupted. This was not trivial to a farmer or a peasant labourer. For them, the intensely local concerns of food production and supply meant that grand political diplomacy was something that happened in the abstract. Local politics was in many ways far more important and often trumped any nationalistic feelings.
When Napoleon returned from exile, he threw the delicate balance of diplomacy in Europe into a tailspin. The great power players represented by men like Metternich in Austria, and Tsar Alexander had a vision for the future. So did men like Talleyrand. This vision was in many ways backward looking and very autocratic, but it did at least aim to bring peace to a continent that had been ravage by 20 years of war. Still in an unfortunate quirk of fate for Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington had replaced Lord Castlereagh at the Congress, so he was already in place to work on the immediate military response.
Napoleon’s return had shattered the initial dreams of the congress. The coalition of the willing was assembled. They had committed to bringing him down together. Once Waterloo was over, Napoleon’s fall became inevitable. The question of what came next hung in the balance. Castlereagh had wanted to enact a vision of a peaceful Europe with a balance of power and a proto-United Nations. He was determined to avoid a punitive peace settlement with France that was so harsh it would create future conflict. He was desperately worried about allowing one continental power to gain dominance. What he seemed not to realise was that in setting up a balance of power system with the old regimes in charge, he was guaranteeing that the old order would seek to turn the clock back, making future popularist revolutions inevitable. Prussia wanted revenge more than ever. Russia aimed to replace France and Austria as the ultimate power in Europe, with Poland divided up between the various European powers.
Still Waterloo had changed things. The British, particularly Wellington were now the supreme diplomatic power in Europe. In hindsight, we might say how instrumental the Prussians were in turning the tide, but to the powers at the time, Waterloo was Wellingtons victory. In the popular myth of the day, he had stood alone against the best the French could offer and beaten them before the other powers could help. If you’ve listened to my previous episodes you’ll know this isn’t true, but it isn’t entirely wrong either. It is just incomplete.
The Tsar realised that he had to get to Wellington if he was to salvage his idea’s of Russian dominance. The Tsar, like many others wanted to see the Duc D’Orleans succeed Napoleon, but Wellington was known to be close friends with Louis XVIII. Wellington moved quickly to put Louis back on the throne. He summoned Talleyrand and Fouche. Talleyrand was quickly bought off with £10,000 from British secret service funds (or at least the forerunner of the Secret Service). Fouche was bought off when Wellington strong armed Louis to accept Fouche into government. This might seem pretty appalling to us at first glance. The British were deciding on who would rule France, and the shape of European peace, but it should be noted that by pursuing Castlereaghs plan the British were trying to put European affairs before their own, by passing up a once in a lifetime opportunity. Napoleon and many others were stunned. They expected the British to ruthlessly carve up France, steal colonies, force concessions and gained immense commercial and financial benefits, but the British refused to take advantage. Almost every European power gained immense territory and many other treasures, but Castlereagh wanted “security not revenge.” He was genuinely having the courage of his convictions.
Not that the British didn’t behave badly in many ways. The British treated Napoleon appallingly in his exile. Wellington essentially allowed Marshal Ney to be executed after a show trial. Difficulties at home politically meant that Castelreagh had trouble persuading Parliament to accept his various treaties, especially when they might involve Britain guaranteeing Russian power in the Balkans and Middle East and provoke conflict with the Ottoman Empire.
The Castlereagh settlement was for a Quantripple alliance, with regular congresses. It was doomed as a mechanism for European peace. The British were turning inward now that the Napoleonic threat was over. For them, the alliances had been to bring prevent Britain and Ireland being invaded by the French, bring down Napoleon, and turn back the effects of the French revolution. Castlereagh wanted a highly autocratic grand system where the great powers could meet and debate international affairs to prevent conflict and settle all disagreements by negotiation. But Britains inward turn and worries over the financial implications of the war meant they had little interest in further European affairs.
For Russia, the alliances were just to help them gain power in Europe and enforce the will of the great powers on smaller states. This wasn’t because the Tsar was evil or the Russians were somehow bad. They were seeking to establish their own territories and role in a world that often didn’t give Russia either diplomatic respect or deal with them consistently. But it caused immense resentment amongst those smaller states near Russia, who felt threatened by Tsarist expansion.
For Austria the goal was to prevent any liberal movements and to create a stable patch work of static European states. Eventually the naked self interest of the other powers meant Castlereagh began to refuse to attend the congresses after 1815. He had worked so hard to secure the peace, but Britain was in turmoil at home whilst the Great Powers regarded him as a stiff necked idealist. There was no way the system of congresses could cope with rapidly changing international affairs or deal with the pent up liberal movement that was desperate for democracy, freedom and liberty.
The question to ask ourselves is “was it a success?” Well that’s actually quite complicated to answer. We have the benefit of hindsight. It seems to have succeeded on its own terms in many ways . There was no major continental war for decades but it couldn’t re-establish the old regime or lay the foundations for a transition to the mass industrial democracies.
Historian Pavel Murdzhev says
[QUOTE] it served as a foundation that simultaneously maintained a long term balance of power, yet failed to recognise the burgeoning spirit of nationalism that would ultimately upset the peace of Europe. [END QUOTE]
The next few years would be very hard for Europe. Whilst Europe on the mainland attempted to turn the clock back, the British attempted to carry on as if the French revolution had never happened. The British aristocracy viewed the British system having triumphed over any other in the world as demonstrated by the triumph in the Napoleonic Wars . The ruling aristocracy wanted the old order to carry on and creating a land fit for heroes for the returning soldiers, or reforming a tottering political system, was the last thing on their minds. A dysfunctional monarchy and a utterly corrupt parliament meant that for many British people, dark times were ahead. Join me next time as an act of Nature will change the course of history.…..
Welcome back everyone. This has been a difficult episode to choose a topic for. This afternoon I was happily sitting in an english country pub garden, enjoying the sunshine and chatting to my wife about what I should record this afternoon. It should be a fairly obvious choice, after all we’ve just finished the hundred days, and now should be the time to leap into the Congress of Vienna and talk about the politics and the reconstruction of Europe. And it was really the way to set the scene of how Europe and the World was going to be set up politically for the next 48-50 years. My wife said, no that sounds boring. No body likes politics. So we chatted and I said I have this other episode that I’ve got on the go. I’ve always got plenty of topics to talk about and it is another exciting topic. It’s got lots of human drama and all the content we like. She said “there, you should do that one.” I thought to myself well why do we get this idea that the politics is boring or an after thought. Politics isn’t real history or real impact. As you might guess from that, we are going to be doing the politics today.
I think every European school child should have learnt about politics and the Congress of Vienna. Seriously. It is actually possibly the most important series of events in modern history that no one has ever heard of. In many ways, the Napoleonic Wars are only important because they led to this event. Still as the Napoleonic Wars are almost absent from the British educational system, it isn’t really surprising. In fact don’t get me started on how much history is missing from British education. It is quite shocking. Now to give you an idea about what we are covering today, I’m going to read a quote from a book that has been hugely important in terms of sources on this; Rites of Peace by Adam Zamoyski
[QUOTE] The reconstruction of Europe at the Congress of Vienna is probably the most seminal episode in modern history. Not only did the congress redraw the map entirely. It determined which nations were to have a political existence over the next 100 years and which were not. It imposed an ideology on the whole continent, derived from the interests of the four great powers. It attempted to set in stone the agreement between those powers, with the result that their expansionist urges were deflected into Africa and southern Asia. Its consequences, direct and indirect, include all that has taken place in Europe since, including aggressive nationalism, Bolshevism, fascism, the two world wars and ultimately, the creation of the European Union. [END QUOTE]
Rites of Peace Adam Zamoyski intro.
That strikes me as pretty important actually. Honestly, how many of us have heard of it, or know what it was, or what happened? We should. It is a fascinating tail in its own right. Who would rule France after Napoleon? Who would rule Poland? Would there be a Poland? What about the Pope or the Prussians what would they do? Who would control the Baltic or the Mediterranean? Who would end up in power, and who would end up dead? Would Europe continue to fight the wars against principalities and countries that had raged across it for centuries? Or would Europe turn its attention back out across the world? Fighting its proxy wars on other continents and oceans. Politicians and kings squared off. Devious spies, and clever diplomats faced imperial generals or experienced statesmen. Flattery, bribery and corruption vied with high minded principle. Hypocrisy warred with genuine optimism. Had they disposed a tyrant only to create new tyrannies? Clever, ruthless men like Talleyrand destroyed incriminating archives, attempting to shape history itself. It would make such an awesome TV series just for a start. But we don’t hear about it.
I have to say that we can’t cover all the ins and outs of this. It is just too vast and involved and it would lead us so far into the woods, we might never find our way back to a path out again! The Congress wasn’t really a single one off event on a set date. Rather it was a series of positions and negations of the great powers of Europe to decide who and what would be allowed to exist and hold power.
So before we plunge in, I want to give you a few warnings. First is that you must put your C21st baggage at the door. I know you don’t think you have any, that you are here as a rational and completely impartial observer. Well sorry, you aren’t any more than I am, or anyone else is. We all have a set of cultural biases and assumptions that we carry with us. One of the biggest is our instinctive view that there are some universal human rights and moral standards that are so obvious that they are clearly the good we should all be aiming at. Even if your view of human rights as a term is negative, you probably wouldn’t disagree that people have the right to life, liberty and some form of self governance. The precise form liberty or freedom takes to you might vary, but that seems plain. If you want to understand the actions at the congress, you need to understand that this view is extremely modern. Even the concept of war crimes as we understand them simply didn’t exist until after WW2. In 1815, liberty was much more of a concept that meant justice under known law and custom, rather than the libertarian concept of liberty we have today. The idea of the right of self determination based on the will of the general population could be seen as a dangerous affront to liberty, as it was felt the general will could change quickly and even carelessly. Liberty was guaranteed by the fact that it was made up of long established laws and customs, which everyone knew and had accepted for generations. To say you could have a revolution to give liberty to the people seemed to some of the governing class of the time an oxymoron. By overthrowing time honoured systems, you were taking away their liberties and securities and replacing them with anarchy. Changes in the status of nations or territories was supposed to be by treaty, and these treaties usually had to respect established liberties or customs to be successful, otherwise they risked sparking revolt. This is a big reason Napoleon had such a problem dealing with the allies. They saw him as not playing by the rules of the existing game. He and the French revolution were fundamentally overturning the board.
Another piece of baggage you probably have is that you might think that honour is just a word. An abstract you can ignore at whim. If you make a promise on your honour today, it means essentially nothing. That wasn’t the case for most of history. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars honour was as real to a gentleman as a credit rating is to us today. Neither are real in the sense of being a thing you can touch, they are both abstracts, yet both can seriously affect real life. If a gentleman gave his word of honour, or swore on his honour, it taken very seriously. This might sound crazy, but as relationships were more face to face and personal, honour was a way of codifying and exercising power without it being overly oppressive or requiring complex laws or contracts. This was, in a strange way, a big problem Napoleon had had. The allies refused to recognise him as a gentleman, and he was not especially honest on his own in many situations. This made the allies feel that he didn’t have the honour required for treatment as an equal. The importance of honour was that it allowed value to be assigned to individuals but to also let them carry out complex transactions with little formality – as a nobleman you didn’t have to get a lawyer and a set of documents and witnesses to carry out every deal or uphold an agreement. You could swear on your honour that you would return a horse for example that had been loaned to you along with a thousand guineas and it was seen as a given. In some ways it almost harks back to older traditions of oath taking or even tribal honour systems.
Insults to personal honour were therefore not just abstract. They could have real world consequences. A man who was called a liar could lose honour. This could translate to reduce social standing. That had real knock on effects. It might be harder to get income or reduce the chances of marriage or getting promotions. Who would promote a man known to be dishonourable after all? This could even affect children. A disgrace serious enough could blacken the whole families name, reducing the marriage prospects of the children – which was of critical importance perhaps even to their very survival. Honour had to be polished and guarded carefully. Insults to honour demanded a personal response, even to the point of a duel.
This concept even scaled up to nations and principalities in a way. A nation that was considered to be acting honourably would be better treated even if unsuccessful, than a more successful but less honourable one perhaps. Of course at both the personal and national level, self interest was still a driving concern. Honour didn’t require complete stupidity or the total abandonment of common sense.
Another piece of modern baggage we will need to get rid of is the idea that the nation state is the fundamental political entity. It certainly wasn’t in 1815. Nations did exist, but they did so alongside principalities, protectorates, independent territories, crown dependencies, duchies, confederacies, alliances, leagues, city states and empires. Allegiance was often much more personal, and the societies more structured. Think of it like having a patch of lands ruled by a King called Bob. King Bob doesn’t own the lands, and the lands themselves aren’t necessarily next to each other. Instead each land has a Duke or a Cardinal, who owe King Bob fealty. Together they make up the Glorious Kingdom of Minionia. In turn they have a load of subjects that owe them allegiance and work land for them. Perhaps they sometimes get together to have a Parliament of some kind to advise King Bob. Probably King Bob dislikes this Parliament and his over mighty lords and merchants who try to constrain his theoretically absolute power. He therefore cracks down on two of his dukes who seem to be a little too big for their boots. One of the disgruntled dukes switches his allegiance to nearby King Stuart. King Bob is outraged, especially when the Duke pays lucrative rents to King Stuart in return for a mercenary company. King Bob and King Stuart soon end up at war, with troops raised from the various territories that owe them fealty or allegiance in some way. At the end of some indecisive fighting, King Bob recognises the switch of the Duke and his lands to King Stuart, whilst King Stuart gifts King Bob with an island in the Carribean that comes with bananas. Neither King is at real risk of losing his throne, and the mutual treaty would probably be a dull transfer arrangement and the individual customs of the individual towns & cities within the territories would be largely unchanged. Neither King is in any way interested in democracy, and the rebel Duke certainly wasn’t a champion of the people. Nor, as you can see, is there a particular nation state here going to war against another nation state. Nor are the people expected to be loyal to an abstract entity like the nation state. Perhaps if the war had gone on too long, the Kings might have aligned themselves with a more powerful political entity like the Russian Empire or the Holy Roman Empire.
Now imagine one day, Napoleon bursts onto the scene. He moves swiftly into the area, sweeping aside the patchwork armies of the two Kings. He swiftly deposes both of them, abolishes the old feudal order and sets up a more modern, rational state. A lot of old town councils and regional aristocrats lose power and land that they’ve held for centuries. Long established and restrictive guilds are abolished. A town might find itself grouped into a new region created by merging its territories with a hated rivals. People who believed themselves independent towns found themselves part of new political entities created by Napoleon. The way of doing things that they had grown up with was gone. For some people this was a huge step forward. Many of the old medieval guild systems were highly restrictive. The Jewish populations benefited immensely from Napoleon. He was shocked and horrified to see Jews in ghetto’s, forced to wear the Star of David. It drove him into a rage when he came across it. He acted swiftly to abolish the ghettos and free the Jewish population. So from certain points of view, Napoleon could be a liberator, but he was also a destroyer and these re-orderings of territory usually came with demands for money, loot and manpower for the French armies.
Lets pause and think about what a tidal wave to the political and religious order Napoleon really was. Instead of kings and dukes and emperors fighting limited wars, with territories moved by treaty and agreement, he simply smashed the opposition, dominated those he found useful, unseated those he found useless and swept away the old political orders. He also instituted religious freedoms that shocked conservative and Catholic leaning Europe. This was essential a twin assault on the very fabric of the rulers and their Empires across Europe. By sweeping away the old feudal structures he was attacking the pillars of divine kingship, aristocracy and ancient custom. By attacking the Catholic Church he was attacking the religious glue that often held these disparate territories together.
To the British establishment, this was a direct attack on the order of government and society itself. Already the poor and starving in the English countryside, rural Ireland and recently cleared Scottish Highlands were pressing for reform. For work. For food. How was the British state to respond? Certainly not by giving more power to the people and reforming government. Supposing the British population started to rebel like the Americans had? What if they too declared “No taxation without representation”
The Prince Regent absolutely wasn’t having that, nor were the aristocracy. Britain was anxious. The Royal family was not well regarded, and a key part of Victoria’s rise to immense power and prestige was her ability to turn the page on the actions of the Royal family during this period. Essentially she demonstrated she was fundamentally not like the George’s or their relatives.
Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars the questions facing the great powers were what should the political shape of post war Europe and the world be, and what kind of arrangement should be made in Europe for the future to prevent further wars? The continent was sick of war after decades and decades, and determined to put it behind them.
For Russia, the answer seemed obvious. Tsar Alexander considered himself chosen by God to crush Napoleon to personally lead mankind into a new era of peace. A balance of power between all nations was needed so that no one power could dominate any other, making war too costly, with the Tsar seeing himself as the supreme arbiter of Europe and the Russians as supreme powerbrokers. This would naturally require Russian power to increase, especially towards Constantinople and the Baltic, but also into Poland. The Tsar planned to keep large chunks of it for Russia. That was really the main reason the Russians were so supportive of the Prussians. The Russians also wanted to absorb Saxony, which had been part of the Holy Roman Empire till 1806 but in 1814-1815 was under Prussian occupation. Its fate was one of bitter dispute during the congress.
For the Austrians, this was not an attractive option. For them, a strong Prussia and Austria in alliance was needed to buffer against Russia & France, and to protect Austrian territories or an Austro-Franco alliance with a much weakened France buttressing Austria. The Austrians were lucky enough to have the brilliant diplomat, Metternich. Born to an old aristocratic family, he was intelligent, good at setting a goal and doggedly pursuing it. He had studied philosophy, law and diplomacy, and he had a talent with people and getting them to pursue his goals whilst believing them to be their own. He was incredibly charming and very sociable. These are all immense assets to a statesman conducting international diplomacy. By 1806 he was appointed as Austria’s ambassador to France. This gave him an excellent opportunity to study Napoleon first hand and he has provided us with some amazing insights. By 1809 he had risen to be Austria’s foreign minister. He was keen to keep Austria safe and powerful, even if it meant bidding his time. He is quoted as having said
[QUOTE] I foresaw that neither [Napoleon] nor his undertakings would escape the consequence of rashness and extravagance. The when and the how I could not pretend to determine. Thus my reason pointed out to me the direction I had to take in order not to interfere with the natural development of the situation and to keep open for Austria the chances which the greatest of all powers – the power of circumstances – might offer, sooner or later, under the strong government of its monarch, for the much-threatened prosperity of the Empire. [END QUOTE]
Notice that his world view expressed here is purely aristocratic. He has a strong reputation even today as a great foreign minister and diplomat. The Journal of International Relations described him as
[QUOTE] undoubtedly one of the most influential yet controversial figures of European international relations. In many respects, he was before his time, pursuing a realist strategy of power politics decades earlier than this approach dominated the foreign policies of peer countries. Metternich faithfully served the Habsburg Empire for 47 years as its envoy in Saxony, ambassador to Paris, and finally Foreign Minister (Kissinger). Throughout this period, he self-righteously followed a conservative ideology, attempting to ensure stability and the balance of power on the continent. His ultimate accomplishment was indisputably the Congress of Vienna which prevented European war for nearly 35 years and forestalled a major conflict for 99 years (Breunig and Levinger 174). Overall, Metternich was extremely effective in preserving Austria’s power which resulted from his ability to manipulate cunningly the events of 1812 to 1815 by temporarily preserving neutrality and tactically leading peace negotiations. [END QUOTE]
He doggedly played one side off against the other, always preserving the appearance of neutrality or support for France whilst secretly negotiating with the Allies. He was keen that Austria wouldn’t be condemned for breaking agreements with France, but at the same time he made sure that the French received little active support. His guiding light remained the creation of a balance of power in Europe. This status quo was vital to Austria not only for keeping the peace, but also for keeping a very disunited population together. His talent and role in laying the diplomatic ground work to defeat Napoleon was recognised by the British. King George IV paid artist Sir Thomas Lawrence 300 guineas to paint Metternich’s portrait. A staggering sum.
On the downside he was incredibly vain, somewhat pompous, careful not to over commit himself if he didn’t have an escape route, a womaniser, apt to go into mawkish declarations of love and devotion. He had a passionate affair with Wilhelmina, Duchess of Sagan and sister to Dorethea Duchess of Dino who was having an affair with Talleyrand.
He might not have been overwhelmingly intelligent, but he was a perfect diplomat with charm, farsightedness, ruthlessness, talent, and shrewd wisdom. He would dominate European politics into the 1840’s and is worth remembering. He will come up on the test later.
For the Germans and Prussians, the first true stirring of greater German nationalism could be seen. The fiery passion of Heinrich nom Stein was a bloodcurdling call to arms that linked nationalism not just to a territory or individual ruler, but to an abstract concept of a greater Germany.
Stein was a former knight of the Holy Roman Empire, and he challenged the Prussian King Fredrich’s alliance with Napoleon. Stein was an uptight moralist, and energetic civil servant, who became fiercely nationalistic. Whilst he wanted to see a unified, modern Germany, he recognised only Prussia had the strength and unity to build on. This brought him into conflict with the weak King Fredrich. By a strange quirk of fate, Napoleon recognised his immense administrative talents, but wasn’t aware of Stein’s fanatical German nationalism, so Napoleon forced King Fredrick to accept Stein as his principle administrator. Stein was soon implicated in anti French activity, and was forced to flee to Austria before getting sanctuary with Tsar Alexander. The two men clicked and formed a powerful working relationship.
When the Russians swept westwards after the French retreat of 1812, Stein was put in charge of the German territories. He soon clashed with the Prussian King, especially as Stein not only began reorganising territories to further German reunification, but also began calling for a bloody war of vengeance and reprisal even against Germans who had joined the French.
Finally pressure from Stein and the Tsar resulted in Prussia switching to ally with Russia against France, but the German states remained in turmoil, with Stein making appeals to the people and sweeping away the establish order in many ways reminiscent of Napoleon to an extent that struck some observers as highly hypocritical.
So what does this mean for us? Well, I’m only giving you a very brief sketch here, but as you can see at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the future of Europe was not only unsettled incredibly complicated. I could spend show after show going through all the various changing circumstances. What I want to get across is just how convoluted and chaotic Europe actually was. The aristocracy were trying desperately for stability, but not in a easy, neat nation state way we would understand today. The end result was more akin to putting a lid on a pressure cooker.
So much hinged on the outcome of situations with Prussia and the German states. The Tsar wanted himself as the supreme liberator of Europe with the right to settle European affairs into a balance of power to eliminate all future wars, with Russia as pre-eminent. Russia would need to acquire immense territories in the Bulkans, Poland, and the Crimea. The Austrians wanted a strong core of central Europe that was free of foreign influence. This would require Prussia and Austria to act as the strong central guarantors of and protectors of the region. This would also require a strong France and a strong Russia to counter balance each other. An invasion of France and dismantling her was therefore not something Metternich would wish to see. It was therefore diametrically opposed to the Russian position of the Tsar, but also opposed to the extreme German nationalism of Stein not only because a unified Germany would clearly be the dominant power in Europe. But because if Germany marched into France or the Prussians marched into France to seek dismantle France and seek retribution after Napoleon fell, then this would throw out Metternich’s scheme of a counter weight to Russia.
Those of you who are reading ahead are probably able to see the glimpses of the causes of World War 1 & 2 already. The history of Europe since 1812 is almost the story of the rise of Germany. Also, whilst a peaceful balance of power sounds nice and a good goal to work for, it requires a large degree of fixed, static politics; reform and change is not well suited to a balance of power system. That might be fine to the ruling elite and seem a self evident good, but for the losers in the system it was a horrific prospect as change and reform was ruled out.
Metternich also had to accept that the real spanner in the works of all European diplomacy was Britain. Metternich initially wanted France to make a peace settlement that would keep Napoleon in power, but without his military empire. After the disaster the French had suffered in Russia, well surely Napoleon would have sought a good peace, with the deal slightly in Austria’s favour. But Napoleon was only willing to negotiate on his own terms since he recognised that his own power base was built on his military victories. Metternich was secretly negotiating with the allies at this point anyway.
Still a peace would have actually worked out well for France. If before 1812 she had withdrawn from Spain, parts of Italy and the smaller states, kept her limited territorial gains along the Rhine, the loot of the Empire, then maybe France would have come out of the Napoleonic Wars incredibly well. Napoleon could have then restructured France how he wanted and maybe focused on building a long range navy that could have challenged Britain in the wider world in the arena’s of trade and empire building. And Russia would have been kept in check by the prospect of future conflict with Austria and France if they stepped out of line. Napoleon was never going to agree to the terms and Metternich had no desire to replace a powerful France under Napoleon with a powerful Russia under Tsar Alexander.
Of course for any peace to work the British needed to agree. The British were the great financiers and power brokers of the Napoleonic Wars. This was vexing to Metternich who considered the British self interested, arrogant in the extreme, and of only marginal importance in Europe outside of bankrolling the wars. The British hated the French with a passion born of centuries of war in general, and a fury for France effectively causing Britain to lose the American War of Independence in a humiliating fashion, and nearly sparking a chain reaction that almost saw Britain lose her Empire, face an uprising in Ireland and nearly be invaded. Added on top was the British aristocracies absolute loathing of everything to do with the French revolution in general and Napoleon in particular. It was fair to say that British French relations between 1770 & 1815 were as bad as they had been at any tother point in history nearly. They wouldn’t even talk to Metternich, and they viewed the Austrians as pro-French despite all evidence to the contrary. The British did view the Russians as natural allies, which was awkward for the Russians who viewed the British as supreme rivals. Some Russians were so worried about British naval power that they were hesitant to pursue the retreating French in 1812 because of concerns about British power in the Mediterranean and South Asia.
The British appointed a new Foreign Secretary in 1812, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh to deal with the diplomatic situation. He was a clever man, persistent, highly talented. He was dominant in British politics both in England and Ireland. He was able to quickly identify problems and describe them clearly, a vital trait in diplomatic circles. He was not without his flaws though. He had no experience with diplomacy. He was entirely ignorant of European affairs. He was dogmatic in his political principles, adhering strictly to those of his political idol William Pitt, and he was supposed to be very unimaginative. I’m not entirely sure how to square this view which comes across quite strongly in some sources, with other sources where some historians with the immense ambition, complexity and long levity of his diplomatic system. He was involved in suppressing a revolt in Ireland that was leaning towards a revolution. It forced him to bend his reformist principles, so whilst he acted with mercy as far as he could, and he pushed for Catholic emancipation, he came out of Ireland with a reputation for dishonesty.
His private life was scandalous, and he had wounded a fellow cabinet minister in a duel over political betrayals. He refused to trust Metternich as far as he could throw him at first. Whilst on the one hand that was understandable, on the other it was a pretty poor way to start a diplomatic revolution.
The primary focus of the British remained trade, industry, oversea’s expansion and an obsession with Ireland. They had initially only entered the wars when the French got control of Antwerp, threatening British naval interests. If Napoleon had left the northern channel ports alone, it is likely the British would have ignored him, whilst taking in French refugees and maybe paying for the odd armed uprising. The British often bankrolled the wars but didn’t put troops on the ground until comparatively late. They had a small operation in Portugal, which then got larger in Spain, but they didn’t suffer anything like the other continental powers fighting Napoleon, although they did often bankroll conflicts since they could maintain a smaller standing army at home because of the geographical isolation, and by spending on troops of other nations or principalities on the continent, she was saving her own army from having to be increased and fight directly.
This caused a lot of resentment in Europe, where they felt Britain was making bank by snatching up French ships, confiscating trade goods, and seizing French colonies, whilst not taking any real risks herself. She was seen as profiting from the war, investing in prolonging it, and getting rich off the conflict; a good little war indeed. This meant that despite her bankrolling the coalitions, and her intense commitment to the wars against France, when Castlereagh was appointed, Britain was actually diplomatically quite isolated. In fairness, Britain had suffered a run of military disasters, and was focused on securing her Empire in India and the Mediterranean. If France would kindly not invade her, or cut off trade with the continent, then the British had other things to worry about like the war with America, no matter how much most of them loathed the French.
Castlereagh had thrown himself into coalition building with vigour in 1813, and it was largely thanks to him that the initial alliance was signed with Russia. He quickly grasped the vital importance of the principle that members of the coalition couldn’t sign separate peace agreements with Napoleon since that risked weakening them and isolating Britain. This of course meant that many secret treaties were signed behind the scenes. Russia was particularly keen to carve up chunks of Poland and retain it after the war by offering the Prussians German territories in place of the Polish ones that Russia had seized from Prussia. This should give you a good hint why Napoleon had a lot of very dedicated Polish troops including one of his finest Marshals. Napoleon couldn’t create a Polish Kingdom, but he came close.
The British position remained highly intransigent. They wanted Napoleon gone. This wasn’t negotiable. They didn’t have any real interest in the complexities of the European situation in the way that Austria was invested. Metternich spent much of 1813-1814 playing a careful balancing game of keeping Austria out of direct confrontation with France and also keeping the Russians and Prussians in the fight, but stopping them getting too powerful until he could broker a peace on Austrian terms. This made him deeply unpopular with many Austrians. He was enraged when some of them tried to drum up support for a guerrilla insurrection in Italy against the French and he was exasperated when he caught a British agent trying to smuggle funds to them in Austria. He kindly returned the courier to Castlereagh and suggested better diplomacy in future. It was especially worrying for him as the French were beginning to suspect he was playing both sides and had him under observation.
1813-1814 passed in a strange whirl of war and armistice, careful moves shaken by disasters. Napoleon seemed both brilliant and inept. Diplomacy worked magic for both sides, then bad luck dashed careful arrangements. Napoleon’s declining fortunes eventually lead him to recognise an independent and neutral Switzerland. A historic event, but one designed to secure French borders. The Swiss had been very favourable to Napoleon especially after he swept away a lot of the old feudal chains on the people, making them free and equal citizens before the law. Tsar Alexander was happy with Swiss neutrality and didn’t want it violated, whilst Metternich busied himself trying to create a revolt in Switzerland to restore the Ancien Regime, causing the Tsar to erupt in fury. Metternich didn’t care and wasn’t about to throw out the allied invasion plans simply to keep the Tsar happy or to respect the infant Swiss nation, so he arranged for the allied attack on France to continue through Switzerland. This would cause a permanent enmity between the Austrian’s and Russian’s.
It had the byproduct of making the fanatical Stein see Austrian influence in Germany as being untrustworthy and dangerous to German morals. It strengthened his views that only a pure unified Germany was acceptable.
I know some of you are thinking; well this is great, but is it really influencing the Victorians? Yes, yes it absolutely it. You can already see that the building blocks for the rise of Germany are being put in place. The mutual resentments on the continent that will lead to wars, alliances and the scramble for colonies oversea’s were all being mixed into the brew here. Napoleon hadn’t even been deposed in 1813, but you can see the outline of the some of the causes of World War One and Two. I think I should emphasise again that a lot of nations in Europe really aren’t anything like as old as they claim, and a lot of the borders are a bit more arbitrary than they would like to admit. With the exception of France, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Armenia and Russia, a lot of European nations have not had their borders or citizenships well defined for a very long rim at all, and they have been very changeable. This set up, post war, world would mean that absence of conflict in Europe and the balance of power meant that the nation states that were growing in power could no longer expand within Europe and had to look oversea’s for their expansion.
The natural place came to be in South Asia or Africa because expansion in Europe was no longer possible. So in many ways this would help focus Europe outwards in the age of Victorians and mean that Britain, instead of having to worry about continental wars, would now be able to focus on her wider world interests. This was a huge step change. European stability had an immense impact but it also meant that democratic reform, or political reform, or social reform, were all to be kept under wraps for this early period. This would help push pressure for reform in the early Victoria era and some of the mass migrations that would help shape the world.
Eventually the manoeuvre’s had to come to a head. Metternich had three of the heads of state in one place, so the coalition could make quick decisions, but as usual the British were absent. British law of the time prevented the King or Prince Regent travelling oversea’s unlike the Tsar or King of Prussia. The British didn’t even have a representative and viewed everything Metternich did as dishonest, especially as the always efficient British spy network had got access to all of Metternich’s secret papers. In fairness to Metternich he somehow had to hold together the largest diplomatic alliance in the history of Europe and keep it pointed at the greatest military commander of modern history, despite wildly different agenda’s.
Still there was one brutal fact that was compelling the British to actually get more involved in diplomacy. They had already been shocked and disbelieving when British envoy’s had found Europeans didn’t view British goals and actions in a favourable and friendly way as was assumed in London. As is a repeated failing in British history, British statesmen acted in what they thought was a genuine and noble way, and simply couldn’t understand how anyone else could have a different view of their actions. The British were incapable of seeing things from someone else’s point of view. But the brutal fact I mentioned was something that always forces people to concentrate; money. The 20 years of war had cost the British over £700,000,000. That is a staggering sum of money especially in 1815. Absolutely staggering. This is more, from what I can see of my reading than they had spent during WW1. It showed just how enormously wealthy the British actually were, but a lot of this was the result of Britain being able to militarise the national debt but even the seemingly unlimited wealth of trade, slavery, looting, coal, the spinning jenny and cotton mills had limits. War with America, with France, and with many other powers, was becoming too expensive.
So in December 1813 Castlereagh and his family battled storms and snow to cross the channel and arrive in the Netherlands. Metternich had previous wanted the British to get more involved in European diplomacy, and he was about to get his wish although he probably regretted it sometimes. For the first time in a long time, the British were about to really flexi their muscles on the continent and start dictating the New World Order. The British would be a supreme power players in the European order for years to come.
British vision on the continent might have been limited, but when it came to the wider world, the British were well aware that they were the supreme naval power. This in turn made them the supreme European power in the wider world. The United States was still an infant nation, with immense potential, but a very small navy. The British had recently conquered Sri Lanka – then known as Ceylon. They were the main power in India and the elimination of the French meant the riches and resources of the entire Indian sub continent were laid before them. European rulers were envious. Indian rulers who followed events in Europe would be very aware that the British were now the main European power. The network of naval bases would allow them to intensify that hold. Better still for the British, there was now no French naval action in the far East to impede trade. This would play into the hands of the East India Company.
Nothing would persuade any British statesman that any post war settlement should restore French influence in India.
Please note that when I’m talking about India here, I’m using a very modern short hand. India of the early C19th was made of a number of proud states or Empires with some long histories. The Shikh state of the Punjab in particular would demonstrate a military capacity on a par with the British, and Sikh soldiers were some of the finest & bravest in the world.
With French oversea’s ambitions destroyed, and most continental powers focusing on the continent, the principle points of interest for the British in Europe remained the Mediterranean and entrance to the Black Sea. These were of great concern to Russia, which wanted civilian and military shipping access to the Mediterranean. You might notice that this remains a thread in C20th history and even modern Russian relations.
This would impact on the ailing Ottoman Empire, and further complicated matters. Naturally the Austrians were concerned as Russian expansion on the shores of the Black Sea and Crimea would impact their territories in the Bulkans.
Battlestar Galactica fans might be tempted to say “all this has been before and will be again.”
I hope you are beginning to see that European diplomacy can become very tangled, very quickly. Mutual distrust, wildly different goals, mismatched ambition and resources, plus concepts of national honour meant that things were going to be really tricky. You can see why the British appointing someone like Castlereagh with no knowledge or experience of Europe could be exasperating to the other parties.
But for now, we’ve had a real belter of an episode. There’s a huge amount of background information I’ve give you here. Next time we will deal with the actual nuts and bolts of events and look at some of the people who were involved in a bit more detail.
Today’s episode is a full episode and a return to the narrative where we left it in February at the end of the battle of Waterloo. Since then we’ve done a special episode on battlefield surgery and then we did an episode on the amazing Annie Besant and the Matchstick Girls strike, which was the Easter Special.
They say that the mark of a man is how he copes with getting knocked down. Personally, I think that phrase just perpetuates some unhealthy stereotypes, but let’s run with it for this episode. When we left the last show it was the night after Waterloo. Napoleon had suffered a catastrophic defeat. Most people honestly either fall to pieces after relatively small set backs, or they are too afraid to take risks that might end in failure. Napoleon though was now suffering massive defeat. He had been beaten before in his career, and exiled, but there was a different air to this. This was the wreck of his entire army in what had seemed an even contest. He was on the verge of triumph. It was really his last great throw of the dice.
Can you imagine the stress he would have been under. He was the Emperor of France. The country and the lives of its people were his responsibility. His beloved army was scattered and in retreat. He had political enemies at home. It seems to me that he suffered some kind of mental breakdown as his behaviour over the next few days indicated. Perhaps the closest I can describe it is imagine your business goes bankrupt and your partner leaves you on the same day. That’s sort of the stress Napoleon was under. Except far worse. Whatever his many faults, Napoleon loved France and he must have known that this would have dire consequences for his beloved homeland.
As the 19 June arrived, Marshal Grouchy actually won the last real French victory against the Prussians. It was for nothing. News of the disaster of Waterloo reached him early on 19 June. The messengers were so overwrought that at first Grouchy could barely understand them. When he did, his blood must have run cold. Not only was this absolute defeat, but he knew instantly that when he had refused the advice of General Girad the previous day to march his men toward the sound of the gunfire at Waterloo, he had contributed to that defeat. If he had listened to his subordinates advice, perhaps he would have been able to help at Waterloo.
Immediately Marshal Grouchy began his excuses, and he would continue to give them for the rest of his life.
The main French army was in dire straights. Almost all of it was a confused mass of men, wagons and horses. Many had thrown away their weapons and were helpless against the vengeful Prussians. Some sources state that the Prussians were killing wounded and prisoners. Some French troops committed suicide rather than fall into Prussian hands. If even a quarter of the French army could have got organised, they could have held up the Prussians at the critical choke point provided by the town of Genappe where the bridge crossed the river Dyle. It would have provided critical hours for the main of the army to reform and get to safety. It wasn’t to be. Only a few regiments of the Old Guard retained the iron discipline and weapons for an ordered retreat.
There would have been a big difference in a post Napoleonic French political order if the army had been able to stage a fighting retreat from Waterloo rather than being swept away in a rout. The army could have been a nucleus for new recruits, acted as a counter balance to the chamber of deputies and made an Allied invasion a much tougher prospect. It was the chaos, not the actual causalities that made recovery impossible.
Marshal Grouchy was retreating too. He was doing it in good order, not just because he hadn’t been involved in the catastrophe at Waterloo, but because he actually seemed to up his game considerably. He performed a masterful fighting retreat. He managed to recapture some lost cannon, fend off Prussian cavalry and take up fortified positions in Namur. He got plentiful support from the Napoleon loving locals. He beat off a Prussian attack, and even managed to kill the future Chancellor Otto Von Bismarks uncle, then another retreat, blowing up bridges as he went. Again the intangibles of psychology are at work here. Why did he only start performing when it was critical and yet unimportant. Was it that he needed the shock to his system. Had he been too inexperienced and complacent before Waterloo, only to be galvanised by news of the defeat? Or is it just that a fighting retreat needed less initiative from him. We might never know those reasons.
For the Allies too, the night after battle was as much about mourning as it was about celebrating. Wellington was physically and mentally exhausted. He had had an incredibly stressful day, almost always under fire and watching as the fate of Europe itself hung in the balance. He visited his friend and Aide De Camp Sir Alexander Gordon as soon as he left the battlefield. Sir Alexander had to have his leg amputated at the groin and if you listened to my battlefield surgery episode you will know just how incredibly dangerous that was. After visiting his Wellington sent news to Loius XVIII in Ghent before having dinner. He spoke very little, but kept glancing up anxiously in the hope that some of his missing staff officers and friends might arrive. Eventually he collapsed into bed exhausted.
At 02:30 he was woken by a surgeon, David Hume who told him that his close friend and comrade Sir Alexander had died. Hume began listing the casualties of the day and Wellington burst into tears, before saying
[QUOTE] “thank God I don’t know what it is to lose a battle, but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” [END QUOTE]
This is true as Wellington had never lost a major battle he commanded and he actually had a close circle of aristocratic friends in the staff, a good number of whom died. As a commander he cultivated the mask of icy indifferent emotionless bravery, but underneath he was still a deeply feeling man. How far this extended to the common soldier is open to debate, but he was careful with his men’s lives and welfare to a degree that Napoleon wasn’t.
I think it is certain that a lot of men were feeling similar emotions in the British, Dutch and Hanoverian ranks. The Prussians seem to have been more interested in chasing the French and killing them. Blucher especially wanted to push on to Paris, skipping sleep, resupply or food for his men if it meant he could take the city. It is entirely possible he would have sacked it thoroughly or even burned it to the ground. Wellington wouldn’t be rushed though, as he later said to the Prussian liaison officer
[QUOTE] Do not press me on this point, for I tell you, it will not do. If you were better acquainted with the English army, its composition and its habits you would say the same. I cannot separate it from my tents and my supplies. My troops must be kept well supplied in camp, if order and discipline are to be maintained. It is better that I should arrive 2 days later in Paris than that discipline should be relaxed. [END QUOTE]
After receiving the news of the death of his friend and the casualty list, Wellington got up and began writing reports. His terse dispatch to London could almost sound like he lost the battle. He singled out a few officers for praise, including Sir Alexander. He was a bit less generous to the Earl of Uxbridge, Lord Henry Paget, than the man deserved given the amazing performance of the heavy cavalry, and the fact that he had his leg blown off by a cannon ball. Whether this is because of the lack of general discipline in the cavalry and the loss of control of the charge, or perhaps just Wellingtons personal style, or perhaps because the Earl had previously had an affair with Wellingtons sister in law, but we don’t know the exact reason. Still an initially furious Lady Uxbridge, was eventually consoled when the Pagets were elevated to the rank of Marquess of Anglesey. The name Paget will come up again and again in the Victorian era, so this is a family name to remember. I really wish I had time to do an episode on the Earl because he is a really, really interesting guy and he will appear in the podcast again and of course Wellington could be very sparse with his praise. The artillery were particularly badly served in terms of receiving laurels and praise. Many gunners felt extremely hard done by and overlooked after their hard service of the day.
As the Allies left the battlefield of Waterloo, its fame spread. Displaying typically ugly human behaviour, tourists descended on the battle field, eager to see the spot where Wellington triumphed and Napoleon the Corsican Ogre was defeated as they saw it. The field was not cleared in the way we would today. Aristocratic ladies and gentlemen took musket balls, clothes and badges, and even bone fragments as keepsakes to say they had been at Waterloo. Unearned privilege was on full display. John Croker bought a Legion D’Honour that had been looted from a dead French officer. Walter Scott himself obtained a cuirass riddled with holes. Lady Wailde took some ashes from the remains of dead guardsman at Hougoumont home with her in an envelope whilst a visiting reverend collected some skull fragments.
Still, for locals it was an opportunity.
[QUOTE] A mile beyond Waterloo, most tourists would leave their carriage at the village of Mont Saint Jean and perhaps engage a battlefield guide. A local man, whose house had been filled with wounded after the battle, found regular employment as such and professed a deep hatred of Napoleon “And all for one man” he would say. “Ce coquin!” He would tell his English clients of the sufferings he had witnessed, “nothing but sawing off legs and sawing off arms” Then he would repeat his refrain “Oh mon dieu! And all for one man” and, following Bonapartes capture and exile, he would add “Why did you not put him to death?” [END QUOTE]
“The Aftermath – O’Keeffe”
Why indeed? It was a common sentiment. The Prussians wanted to, and poetry was written about it.
The poet laureate Robert Southey of the period wrote
“For him alone had all this blood been shed,
Why had not vengeance struck the guilty head?
One man was cause of all this world of woe,
Ye had him and ye did not strike the blow”
This was wholly unfair of course, and even worse it is terrible poetry. As always the reality was much more complex. Napoleon alone was not responsible for all the bloodshed. The causes of any war are usually complex and multifaceted. Still, in the popular mind of the time, Napoleon was a tyrant and he started the war.
News gradually reached the courts of Europe. Naturally the British were amongst the first to get the news. Major Henry Percy carried Wellington’s famous dispatch. Carrying a dispatch was considered a mark of high honour. He also carried the captured Eagles. Remember Sergeant Ewart and his revenge for the death of his beloved commanding officer? He had taken the eagle in desperate fighting, cutting and killing in a frantic melee. Well now the Eagle would be paraded and displayed and cheered as a symbol of Britain chaining the Eagle. Ewart would naturally be given the full hero’s legend treatment, but he and the other unsightly veterans would not be coming home to a land fit for hero’s as the saying goes.
Soon the whole UK was soon abuzz with the news. The great war was finally over. Peace, freedom, and the natural order could return to Europe. Yet the problem with Freedom is that its definition is in the eye of the beholder. Freedom meant a very different thing to a conservative British philosopher than it did to an American founding father. Both would argue that they were representing the true strands of freedom, liberty and justice. But both might arrive at very different conclusions about what those terms really represented.
In France, and in the courts of Europe, decisions had to be made. To capture Napoelon? To kill him? To banish him? Should he be exiled again or be allowed to go to America? Would he somehow cling on and scrape an army together to defend France? If not, who would rule France now? Napoleon’s son? The Duc D’Orlean? Louis XVIII. Or would the country be broken up, with its territory gobble up by Prussia, Austria, Britain and Spain. To Minister Joseph Foche, the ruthless, self obsessed traitor who was chief of the secret police, it was clear that it had to be King Loius XVIII. France had to be a monarchy again and he, Foche, was the only man suited to well advise the king. Foche’s treason had been a big contributor to so many of the disasters in recent French history. Foche was a master manipulator and was confident that naïve republican patriots like the famous La Fayette would be easy to manage. He was already scheming to exercise total control over the chamber of deputies and then puppet master of France.
The equally treacherous and self obsessed Foreign Minister Talleyrand was also for a French monarchy. The various European powers though would need to be persuaded. After all, it was entirely possible they could sweep into France, break it up and share it between themselves. Blucher was talking wildly of horrific acts of revenge, burning Paris, and acts that might border on genocide. The British were less committed. Britain was already being swept by a wave of sentimentality. They had beaten Napoleon by themselves at Waterloo they felt. Surely such an act of near mythic triumph required them to be gracious victors. It would stain their honour to engage in reprisals or the execution of Napoleon or the destruction of Frane. Many were uncomfortable with the idea that they could just impose government on the French, and besides how would it look to history if they killed Napoleon? That would cheapen the victory. Many more far sighted British statesmen were deeply concerned with the idea of France being broken up. They didn’t want to hand ultimate power over the continent from France to Prussia or Russia.
The painter, Benjamin Haydon, probably expressed the sentiment that a lot of the British were feeling. Quoting again from “The Aftermath by O’Keeffe” where he is quoting Haydon.
[QUOTE] the Duke of Wellington had saved for this age the intellect of the world while had Napoleon triumphed we would have been brought back to barbarianism. [END QUOTE]
Still, the feeling was not universal in Britain. Many British had been pro-revolution and pro-Napoleon. Some had suffered under the British aristocracy. Others were enlightenment liberals or were general admirers of Napoleon.
Whether sympathetic, happy, or just anxious for news about relatives and friends who were in the conflict, Britain was swept up in a mania at the news. Full overblown sentiments were let free. Artwork and prosed tended to the fantastical. Good taste was forgotten. This will be very familiar when we move into the Victorian period. It was no longed a victory thanks to god and our soldiers. It became in my words, admittedly made up, but I think this is the right style of it “ a most marvellous event comparable only to Caesars triumph over the Gaul’s. Now as then, our troops did display such fortitude and vigour that notwithstanding the enemies utmost assertions and great excitement, they were turned back as the waves breaking against rock. Such was the courage on display that Mars himself must surely have graced our arms and added greater lustre to the already illustrious achievements of our noble banners.”
Yes I made that up, but it is really in keeping with how the style is going to develop. A good example is the Opera House in Covent Garden, who produce a piece of commemorative art and said [QUOTE] “A grand transparency, representing Britain succouring France, personified by an interesting female figure in a supplicant posture, attired in a robe covered in flour de lis; on her side stands the British Lion. A group of attributes, and above, with expanded wings, appears a figure of fame sounding the trumpet.” [END QUOTE]
IIf it sounds odd when we say Britain succouring France that’s not suckering like a sucker punch, it is succouring as in to give aid to France. The image being created here is that Britain came to France and helped her in her hour of need to free her from Napoleon, rather than being at war with France. This was positively restrained compared to the language that was used by the Morning Post Newspaper to celebrate its collection for the veterans reaching £100,000. Remember when listening to this quote that Plumb was slang for £100,000 and this was a colossal sum of money.
Hail Britain! Thy bounty, beyond all dispute,
Must with wonder strike other lands dumb;
When they see that thy heroes, as victory’s fruit,
Receive from thy kindness a plumb
A plumb for those who fought and bled,
Already they declare;
But some have confidently said
We’ll make that plumb a pair.
Ok, somethings to think about here. The first is that I hope you like this kind of overblown hyperbole because this is just going get more and more common as we go through the Victorian age. Language, ornate, over complicated and verbose is a Victorian trade mark. It can be delightful, baffling or tedious, but I do love it. So get used to it.
The second thing that perhaps leaps out at me is to wonder how much of that sum of money reached the genuine working class veterans, and how much was used effectively. I suspect it went through the filter of aristocratic monument building, then middle class worthy charities well before any trickled down to actually reach the veterans themselves. It is also worth noting that you have to say that piece of humour is not as funny and clever as the author wanted.
British feelings weren’t something that Foche would be able to simply ignore. If the British let the Prussians off the leash then France faced destruction. It wasn’t as if the British were historically friendly to France either. Centuries of continental war against the French made the two nations natural enemies and this would be an ideal opportunity to repay France for what Britain considered to be French aggression and unwarranted interference during the American War of Independence, when French help was instrumental in turning the tide of war in the Americans favour. This could be payback time. At the very least Foche and Talleyrand knew that Britain would be seeking to take advantage and territory from the defeated France surely. Wellington was now supreme commander in Europe and the new political order was in many ways up to him. As a natural conservative aristocrat he would look favourably on Louis XVIII being given power, but equally he was known to want to see a government that was acceptable to the French people, perhaps the Duc D’Orlean and it is unlikely that Wellington had a particularly high opinion of Louis XVIII in person. That wouldn’t remotely suit Foche. So playing up this British myth of a solo British triumph might actually be useful to Foche and Talleyrand. Greatness and generosity in victory would be quite helpful to them at this point.
Paris was in gossipy uproar. Whatever the press had been saying recently, their was a buzz in the air. Rumours circulated. The chambers went into emergency session. More rumours. That Prince Jerome had made a panicked return to Paris, liquidated his government stocks and fled, that there were only 200 Imperial Guard left and Napoleon had been killed. Everywhere the cry “The Prussians were coming.”
Regardless of the future, Napoleon remained technically emperor. He was in full flight to France, ahead of his army. This wasn’t to abandon them through cowardice. Napoleon was never a coward. He just had a bigger picture to focus on. Who would rule France and could France organise a defence. Staying with a chaotic mob would not help save the nation, and need saving it did. Sadly for the Emperor his personal baggage and then later his treasury wagon were looted by lucky Prussian troops, losing him a fortune. Worse, the loot included a list of French spies and many plans.
Nor was Napoleon the only considerable figure involved. There were a lot of Napoleonic loyalists who would still rally to the Emperor or his son. There were many revolutionaries like La Fayette who thought the overthrow of Napoleon would restore the republic. They were as deluded as the original assassins of Caesar at the fall of the Roman republic, but they still had a powerful voice in the French government. If Napoleon could rally them, perhaps a Republican resistance movement would threaten Foche’s plans for restoring the Monarchy. There were other powerful figures to consider. There was Grouchy with his retreating force almost untouched by battle. There were the brilliant Marshals Soult and Clausel, as well as Napoleon’s loyal brother in law Lucien.
Above all else though there was Marshal Davout. What would that icy, disciplined ,and ruthless man do? His loyalty to Napoleon had been beyond that of any other Marshal. He was Minister of War, and if he gathered an army to him, he could put anyone he wanted on the throne, or make Napoleon a unchallenged dictator. He would be an immensely dangerous enemy to the allied forces. He was arguably better than Napoleon at a tactical level and at least as good at the strategic and possibly even theatre levels. He had an enormous list of victories, some better than some of Napoleon’s. He had always drilled his men to maintain iron discipline no matter what. This was not a man to overlook or underestimate. Especially as he had a bitter hatred of Foche.
Finally on 21 June, after many twists and turns, the Emperor reached Paris. He refused the offer of a better carriage on arrival, sticking to a less noticeable one lent to him on the journey. By a less well know route, he entered the city.
I have previously said that it is unusual for a breakfast to make the history books, but Napoleon’s pre-Waterloo breakfast did. Well today, even more usually a bath is going to be crucial to Napoleon’s downfall.
It is sometimes on these strange curiosities that fate can hinge. The day before Napoleon entered Paris, it had been agreed by his generals that the Emperor had to go straight to the Chamber of Representatives, to inform them of everything, to make it clear that France as a nation was in danger, and that they should put aside any petty bad feeling and think only of helping Napoleon preserve the nation itself from utter ruin. This stirring address should come from Napoleon whilst still dressed in his army uniform, smeared with blood, his face blackened with smoke and dirt. He should tell them he was going to return to Belgium at the head of Grouchy’s men and they had to rally the nation and support him. Surely it would be impossible for them to say no to a man clearly fresh from battling for the existence of the French republic?
Yet despite agreeing to this plan, when he arrived, Napoleon decided to take a bath. His circle of ministers and generals gathered outside and had time to worry. Crucial time slipped away again as it did at Quatre Bras and early at Waterloo. Finally Napoleon emerged. Minister Carnot recommended a defence of Paris to give the for the consolidation of all French military forces from other areas, and then a mass counter attack. Others were less confident and asserted that only if Napoleon gained the confidence and support of the chamber of deputies could he continue. Marshal Davout was having none of this. He effectively urged Napoleon to become supreme military dictator for a short period, and move the government out of Paris. Foche immediately disagreed, saying he was sure, sure the government would give Napoleon everything he wanted during such an emergency, if the Emperor would only put himself in their hands. This was a breath taking piece of Chutzpa considering that Foche was busy secretly warning the chambers that Napoleon was planning on becoming a military dictator, and he had also secretly been priming La Fayette to bring matters to a head in the chambers. The Marquis De La Fayette had done wonderful things in support of the American revolution and is justly celebrated for those achievements, but in the arena of French politics he was utterly hopeless in comparison. He believed that Foche was working to save the republic from the military dictatorship of Napoleon. It is baffling why he would trust Foche, but it is also baffling how he could think that deposing Napoleon and effectively neutering the French army would be a good idea in the middle of an invasion.
Still, with the ideals of both revolutions in heart, La Fayette seemed to truly believe he was destined to lead France into a new age of Enlightenment. He rose to his feet in the chamber of deputies and gave a genuinely stirring speech. Graceful yet passionate and compelling. He also made a strong proposal of 5 articles. Art 2 was to have the Chambers in permanent session with any attempt to dissolve them being treason. The choice was now out of Napoleon’s hands. The government would neither dissolve nor leave Paris.
When he heard the news, Napoleon knew what it meant, saying
[QUOTE] I expected this. I should have dissolved those men before I left. It is finished. They will ruin France. [END QUOTE]
Foche’s secret plans had borne fruit. Marshal Davout now flatly refused to proceed with any military coup. He was unwilling to have his troops storm the Chamber, with the attendant loss of life. Before the articles were passed, he would have done, but the moment had passed. The time for Napoleon to seize power had drained away whilst he was in his bath.
Debate raged in the chambers, but it was now clear that they wanted Napoleon gone. Lucien gave a passionate defence of his brother, but La Fayette skilful rebuffed it.
Now the only real options left to Napoleon were to either rally the army and the mobs of Paris to him and kill the politicians in the chambers or to abdicate.
More than the Chamber of Deputies Napoleon understood the real situation
[QUOTE] It concerns me not. It concerns France. They want me to abdicate! Have they considered the inevitable consequences of my abdication? It is around me, around my name, that the army is gathered. Take me away and the army will dissolve. If I abdicate today, in 2 days time there will be no army. This army does not understand your subtleties. Do you think that metaphysical axioms, declarations of rights, parliamentary speeches will stop it from disbanding? [END QUOTE]
This seems to have been a constant failing of many revolutions and governments facing invasions; a constant obsession with speeches, declarations, proclamations and all the trappings without dealing with the often grim reality outside their bubble.
As Napoleon went on to say
[QUOTE] when the enemy is 25 leagues away, you do not overthrow your government with impunity. Do they think they can turn aside the foreigners with phrases. [END QUOTE]
That really cleaves to the heart of the problem. The politicians thought that the Allies were only interested in Napoleon and if he went, well then France could be left alone to form a peaceful republican government. Napoleon understood this to be delusional fantasy land thinking. The enemy wanted to conquer France. The real question was could they be stopped or if not, what kind of deal could France strike with them? If France kept a meaningful army in the field and showed determined resistance, then at least her post war bargaining position might be started from a firmer footing. Some of Napoleon’s Marshal’s like Suchet were already beginning to gain victories in other area’s.
The next day, after some wrangling and bitterness, Napoleon wrote his abdication in favour of his son Napoleon II. With it came Marshal Davouts calm situational report to the Chamber of Deputies on the armed forces. He noted that Marshal Grouchy was returning in good order with his 2 corp. Marshal Soult had gathered together 3,000 Imperial Guard and other line infantry. In all Marshal Davout felt he could put together a disciplined core force of around 60,000 men. As he said
[QUOTE] A strong barrier will be opposed to foreign invasion, and you will have an army sufficiently respectable to support your negotiations with an enemy who has proved that he does not always keep his promises with fidelity. [END QUOTE]
Foche must have had kittens at the mere thought of Marshal Davout as sole commander of French forces. After all, Davout was right. A strong army meant a strong negotiating hand for France and therefore less chance for Foche to get Louis XVIII not only back on the throne, but under his thumb. The Anglo Allied army had been badly battered at Waterloo, so its effective fighting strength was actually surprisingly low. I’ve seen figures of Wellington only have an effective strength of 50,000 at this stage. Worse for Foche, some of the politicians looked thoughtful. Perhaps the abdication had been premature. Maybe they should try Davout’s option. It must have gone almost without saying that Davout would immediately have Foche shot.
Luckily for Foche, but disastrously for France, Marshal Ney was about to intervene again. He had, in the words of Napoleon, ruined France at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. He was about to do it again. He leapt to gave a passionate rant about how the army was destroyed and further resistance was folly. He claimed he had seen its total destruction.
This simply wasn’t true. Ney had basically snapped under the intense pressure. He had betrayed Napoleon, then he had betrayed the King, then failed Napoleon, and had failed to find the hero’s death he wanted at Waterloo. Now he was close to raving.
Whatever his beliefs, reasons, or state of mind, the die was now firmly cast. The military resistance that Napoleon and the Marshals hoped for was no longer an option. Marshal Soult was relieved of his command, which was given to the less talented Grouchy, who would in turn report to Davout. Whilst Davout was given supreme military command , there was no prospect of further resistance. Paris was surrendered under the Convention of St Cloud. On 07 July 1815 the allies occupied Paris. The next day Loius XVIII was made king again.
Napoleon fell into lethargy. He had initially refused to leave the capital, trying to get himself appointed a general of the republic. He had spotted a vulnerability in the allied positions that he could counter attack. The government rebuffed him. There was no way in hell they would allow a reinvented Napoleon the Republican General to sweep in and save the day. So he loitered. His power ebbed away. He eventually left the capital and travelled south. His few friends were desperately urging him to make a run for it, to flee to the United States or to South America or even to the Ottoman Empire. Anywhere out of reach of the French government or the Allies. Napoleon seemed to change his mind constantly, even reaching out to Foche for all people for passports and permission to leave. Quite why he decided this was necessary was baffling. He could have used his loyalist troops and loyalists in the navy to force an escape. Needless to say Foche provided a lot of warm and encouraging words to Napoleon but no real passports or permission to leave.
Eventually on 15 July 1815 he decided to give himself up to Captain Maitland on the HMS Bellerophon and the Royal Navy and throw himself on England’s mercy. Captain Maitland and the Royal Navy were naturally delighted, and Napoleon became a celebrated figure on board ship. The British government was firm that Napoleon was not to be allowed to land in England. They worried that he would charm his way into the aristocracy and become a unexploded bomb. They might have been right. Instead, after much wrangling, and a good deal of pleading on his part, he was exiled to St Helena. This was a far cry from his much more comfortable exile on Elba, and his British jailers treated him appallingly. Whether he merited it or escaped a well deserved hanging depends very greatly on your view of the causes of the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve tried hard to explain that reality is always a lot more complicated than the easy answers of popular culture.
Now though the first true world war was over. It had been fought across the continents of Europe, in the deserts of North Africa, on the high seas, and colonies of the great powers involving India, Africa, South and North America
This left France now, as it had been before the revolution, with the prospect of a useless monarchy that couldn’t address the challenges of the C19th. It would be a long time until France reclaimed her pre-eminence on the continent. For now the Allied Great Powers would settle the balance of power in Europe.
In the next episode or two we will discover how the great and the good would play with the lives of men as bubbles to suit their own visions. For a lot of brave Marshals, a day of reckoning was ahead as vengeful kings, princes and nobles sought payback for the constant humiliations, where men born to poverty rise to the top through sheer merit thereby exposing as false the claims of Kings and Aristocrats as being hollow. Marshal Ney would be executed after a show trial, Murat would meet a similar fate, whilst others went to more ugly deaths.
For now though we also say goodbye to what has been called the finest army that the British ever fielded. It isn’t quite accurate because the army of the Peninsular that Wellington commanded, was actually not in the main present at Waterloo. But when we look at the Napoleonic Wars in total, the British and allied army had performed incredibly under Wellington. Rough, tough, uncultured and largely uneducated. They looked shambolic and seemed to be officered by dandies, with a besetting alcohol problem. But to everyone’s surprise they had fought the French to standstill in Portugal, worked with the brilliant Spanish partisans to turn Spain in a graveyard for the French, expelled Napoleon from France. They had stood with allied troops and finally held off the last great Napoleonic army and the invincible Imperial Guard. It had been a long, hard war. Now though the army was about to march into history. They would be scattered in garrisons around the world, or sent home to see if there really was to be a land fit for heroes.
This is a crucial moment in British history because it really functions as a kind of creation myth for the nation in much the way that WW2 would go on to do for another generation. A British army of English, Irish, Scots and Welsh had fought together. A generation before it was touch and go if the English and Scots would be at war with each other. There was also the military disaster of the American War of Independence, a nadir in British military history, where the British displayed a level of ineptness that nearly broke their military reputation, with only some bright spots in the navy. The Napoleonic Wars changed everything. The Navy had seized control of basically the entire oceans on the planet. The British army had gone from a small, often defeat rabble to a pinnacle of triumph. They had gone toe to toe with the absolute best in Europe, which at that time probably meant the world. They might not have been better at strategy or clever manoeuvres but they had displayed a tough discipline that no one could believe. This meant that for the next century it became almost unthinkable that the British redcoat could suffer defeat as far as the British were concerned. For the Scots, the Highlanders had been newcomers to the British army. Distrusted and distrustful. Still loyal to their clan chiefs and with memories of the rising of 1745 under Bonnie Prince Charlie against the English crown. Yet now, they were admired. The fierce cries of “Scotland forever” had rung out during the desperate bayonet charges. The war cries of the Scots and the terrible, mighty, powerful sound of the pipes would now ring out across the world as the Highlanders and Lowlanders become a key part of the growing empire, and fierce warriors in the Victorian army. The Welsh also came out of Waterloo with a glowing reputation, as did the Irish, especially for the heroics of the 27th Inniskillen.
Fittingly a bronze solider of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Irish Dragoon, a English Grenadier and a Scottish Highlander stands next to the statue of the Duke of Wellington in Hyde Park. All forged from captured French cannons. This was the birth of the united Victorian army
Britain would not see their like again. The soldiers of the future would be very different. Starting to be drawn from factories. Less well fed and with rickets and deformaties. Yet better educated with drink on the decline. With the birth of intense religion amongst the ranks. But for years to come many a soldier and sergeant in a desperate spot somewhere overseas would say “huh, this is nothin’ I ain’t running from this rabble; I was at Waterloo against Bonney and that was a proper fight.”
If you’ve been listening to recent episodes you will know that we have just covered the 100 campaign and the absolute hell that was the Battle of Waterloo. As I said at the end of the last episode, I’ve tried to give you the human cost without national gloss at least as far as possible. You might have noticed a curious omission. Despite all the detail I’ve gone into, I’ve barely mentioned the care of the wounded or the doctors. The reason is that I wanted to do a deep dive on what would have been called “the butchers bill” I am doing this, partly for completeness, because it is fascinating and it is a sharp contrast with some of the immense advances of the Victorian era, but also because it is often barely touched on in films & books on Waterloo in any kind of detail. There is a notable anniversary book on Waterloo that relegates the medical issue to basically a page, gives the tiniest summary, gets the causes of an amputation wrong, then skips on to an anecdote. Medical care is a crucial part of war. It isn’t separate from it, or an after thought. How troops and generals viewed and provided medical care was a major dimension of warfare.
The Napoleonic Wars created a mass of wounded and sick men in need of care. They also maimed thousands of horses that required veterinary attention. I’ve had a lot of great feed back from everyone on how much they’ve enjoyed the Waterloo episodes and the personal perspectives I try to give to history, but some have said they found the descriptions a bit traumatic. So I need to give you a fair warning that this medical episode is going to have come fairly graphic content. There will be descriptions of amputations and other painful injuries so if you are particularly squeamish about medical issues, you should probably skip this and wait for the next minisode.
Still with me? Good, because the C19th is not for the faint of heart. There were significant casualties to treat after Waterloo. How were the armies going to respond? Would they respond? Remember it is a modern ideal that all life is precious and sacred. Through much of human history, a lot of human lives have been considered disposable. Some armies in history would have perhaps abandoned their wounded to whatever ad hoc care that they could beg for themselves. Others might have regarded medical care as useful only if the soldier in question could be quickly returned to the fight. Of course some armies prided themselves on medical care, notably the Ancient Greeks and Roman Legions.
Even armies that adopt a harsh attitude, perhaps like the Spartans, or the medieval English, are not immune to the feelings of the soldiers themselves. Soldiers liked to know that they would be helped if they were injured. They didn’t like watching comrades die if they could be saved. They often fought better if they could have confidence that there was going to be some kind of medical provision.
By 1815, not only was this being recognised, but other factors were coming into play. Enlightenment ideals about medicine as a science were becoming established. The early nation states began to realise that soldiers were a valuable asset and perhaps treating them was better in the long run than letting them die and having to train new ones. Many amateur medical staff began to view themselves as serious professionals, and took pride in their craft.
In a rough total there were around 45,000 dead and wounded to deal with after Waterloo. It is crucial to remember that there are an almost infinite number of ways to injury a human in battle. Simplistically we could say soldiers suffered gunshot wounds, cannon wounds, cuts, breaks, sword blows both slashes and thrusts, and burns. That list is of course an almost meaningless summary. A man might be grazed across the side of his jaw by a spent bullet and therefore be described as having a gunshot wound, but then he receives a sword cut from a French cavalrymen that lands on his upper arm cleaving the bicep muscle down to the bone. Of the two it is actually the sword cut that is much more serious, but the problem is that to a modern person it is easy to mentally assume gunshot is more serious just because we are more used to hearing about them.
Also I want you to remember as we discuss wounds, treatment and general medicine today that you need to leave a lot of modern baggage at the door. First, don’t make the mistake of thinking of these weapons as primitive. They are less technically complicated than today’s weapons and sometimes less lethal, but they were still all highly effective implements of war. Easily capable of killing or inflicting the most horrific wounds. Swords were well designed and deadly. Cannon were absolutely murderous, and muskets have killed hundreds of thousands of people since they were introduced.
Secondly, modern assumptions about pain and people’s expectations of treatment are very different. In fact it is almost impossible to quantify the difference in mind set. The C19th was an age were many jobs and professions left people horrifically maimed. Disease was rampant in civilian as well as military life. Don’t assume that just because someone was deemed treated effectively, in a way that sounds shocking today, that they would have been unhappy with the result.
Thirdly, expectations about pain control were very, very different. If you’ve worked in the medical field you will be familiar with the idea that pain is actually a relative concept. People experience pain differently. One persons mild bump can be another’s crippling agony. A stubbed toe is nasty to a child, but can perhaps be a hospital trip for a 90 year old. I would like you to also remember that there is no right or wrong way to react to pain. It is a subjective experience. That’s why people are asked to rate their own pain on a scale of 1-10 relative only to their own feelings. Some people have a higher tolerance and some people have a lower one and will be unable to carry out day to day functions. The mistake is to think that either approach can be objectively wrong. In fact I bet a lot of people listening have the idea that somehow pain control is a bit wrong. That people should endure as much as possible and avoid drugs. This is very much a cultural value judgement. Pain is just your bodies way of signalling that something is wrong. It doesn’t have a moral dimension. It just tells you “Hey you rammed your toe against a hard object, damaged it and you really need to refrain from walking or running for a while whilst the bodies damage control systems repair things” You however have a cultural expectation. Your boss doesn’t care that you are in agony, or that getting to work is now extremely hard. She doesn’t care you have trouble carrying stuff out from the stock room. All she cares about is that you are making annoying noises that distract her, and that you need to move at your usual speed to keep productivity high instead of nearly crying at each step. She applies the standard management remedy of threatening you with loss of pay or the job, certain that you just require better motivation to heal more quickly. Again this is entirely a social response. Modern society views most claims of sickness as some kind of attempt to rob a company of productivity, and that if people toughened up they wouldn’t get injured or sick so this is their moral failure. Arguments like this have raged in one way or another throughout history.
In the aftermath of Waterloo, there were a lot of badly injured people. By any standards, this was a huge medical disaster to cope with. A modern example of how difficult this can be is people responding to the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas recently. Hundreds of people were in need of help. Think about how difficult it was to get that help to the right people. How were they located and identified as needing help? Hospitals and ambulances had well drilled routines. The modern medical system has an ocean of resources just waiting for these kind of events. Even with all this. Even with the heroic efforts of first responders, brave police, modern roads and structures, it was still a huge undertaking. Above all there is a knowledge and recognition of a “golden hour” after treatment, when medical treatment makes the greatest impact. The idea’s for that would actually be based on knowledge that was being gathered during the Napoleonic wars.
At Waterloo this massive system of support was entirely absent. If a modern doctor walked onto the field of Waterloo straight out of a time machine, and was told “well go on, help people” he or she might have a panic attack. Where to start? Even all the modern knowledge he or she has about infection, pain control and anatomy and genetics, these would be of limited help without the mass of complex resources and systems that enable modern medicine.
Now I’m going to focus on the British medical services in the main. The British did indeed treat medicine seriously in the main. They considered themselves a modern nation with highly educated gentlemen, who had the tools, skills and knowledge to perform incredible feats of medicine and science. As always though, the reality was a lot more complicated. Attitudes varied up and down the social class structure. There was immense local variation in what treatment was available or desired. A small village might be reliant on an apothecary of some sort, plus local treatments and folk memory. Injuries were often farming or drink related and disease was common, probably various forms of fever. In a large city like London, a wide variety of disease and injury were available to the local population, including the diseases of cramped cities as well as increased levels of STD’s. Balanced against this, it was possible to find more varied medical treatment. Apothecaries vied with early pharmacists and barber surgeons.
At the top of the social & medical pecking order though sat the physician. A physician was university educated and usually a wealthy gentlemen. He would have read the classics, including the ancient medical texts of Galen and the various Arab physicians. He would almost certainly read and written in English and Latin, plus perhaps Greek. Whilst he would have obsessions that might seem strange today, such as a focus on bleeding, he would have probably known a lot of more up to date medical literature. If he was especially forward thinking he might even keep case notes, and pass his experience on. Many, probably most, considered themselves serious professionals who were invested in keeping patients alive and healthy and not just for the income. Men like the famous Dr Larrey of the French Imperial Guard were internationally regarded for their medical brilliance. Notice that I am saying he. Women would not really have become physicians at this time, with one or two extremely exceptional cases such as disguising themselves as men. This, plus the high cost of university effectively limited the profession to the sons of rich gentlemen, which severely limited the pool of talent to draw on.
Don’t forget as we go along, that the most advance medicine of any time, will always appear primitive in hindsight. In the 1950s, people thought they were in a golden age of medicine, yet those same techniques look so backwards today.
The social attitudes carried over into the army and navy. The actual profession of medicine was steeped in snobbery. As a result of their education, the physicians felt themselves superior to others in the medical field. They could command high wages, unlike many of the army surgeons, although they weren’t always viewed as completely respectable. Much depended on who the physician was treating. Clearly the Royal Physician would have considerable social standing.
The high cost of becoming a physician deterred many. Qualified physicians were sometimes hesitant to actually practice hands on medicine, leaning more towards some esoteric theory. Even fewer physicians were actually willing to join the army. The army simply didn’t have a high enough social standing before Waterloo. Joining the army took them away from lucrative civilian practices. Worse was the risk of ending up in what was considered an “unhealthy station” like the Caribbean or somewhere on the African coast. Death from Yellow Fever was as much of a risk for a highly educated physician as it was for a regular soldier. A lot of these military postings were in countries that were known during the Victorian period as “the white man’s graveyard” due to the enormous mortality rates caused by various diseases.
The consequence of this was that the fully qualified physician was a rarity and not commonly encountered by regular troops. Social snobbery meant that experienced army surgeons were barred from being promoted to physician so there was an acute lack of practical experience with military disease amongst the physicians, until the old ruling was abolished in 1811. The back bone of the army medical profession was to be the army surgeon. Social snobbery meant that progression was difficult for army surgeons, but many made real strides even if the profession evolved haphazardly. You’ve probably all heard that barbers and surgeons were interchangeable in the middle ages. Well by the Napoleonic Wars changes were sweeping through the ranks of the surgeons. No longer were they associated with barbers. Surgeons could often by committed, professional men, seeking advancement in the military and helping patients. They were assisted by surgeons mates, who varied in quality from aspiring surgeons to drunken incompetents, sometimes regarded by the army as ranking below the horses.
Treatment depended very much on who you were, where you were, what provisions the armies senior officers had decided to provide, and crucially if your mates were around to help you. If you suffered an incapacitating wound, you became reliant on your immediate friends to move you if possible or get help. If your battalion had been forced to retreat, and you got left behind, well things could turn very nasty for you. You could be left unnoticed to die of blood loss, dehydration and infection. Or a miracle might happen and an enemy might decide to care for you. Social standing played a large part. Ideally you were a officer who had been spotted performing something heroic, and a romantic enemy officer might decide to get you recovered in an act of chivalry. This was more common if an enemy general was captured. If you struck gold, perhaps Napoleon heard of your case, and your high rank meant you might get attention from Dr Larrey himself. Since he was probably one of the finest doctors in the world, a forward thinking professional, you might actually get better care than you would have got in your own army. For most though, this would have been like winning the lottery twice. The reality for most was that they would be looted by passing enemy soldiers, and probably just bayoneted or left to die. If the battlefield looting was survived, it was essential for the injured soldier to drag himself to somewhere off the battlefield and get help.
Injured soliders who remained on the field if the army had moved on were now in terrible danger. Local peasants and other civilians would flood the battlefield to ruthlessly loot the fallen. Many soldiers were stripped naked, and a knife quickly drawn across the throat. In the pre-modern age, everything had value from boots to buttons to teeth. If the injured soldier was alive, the looter might be in a hurry and not kill them. Sometimes a solider might be wearing a ring that was hard to take off. Alive or dead, a looter could very well chop the fingers off. Teeth were also valuable and if the looter didn’t want to get blood on the clothes from stabbing a wounded man, then they might rip the teeth out of a living injured soldier.
For this reason civilian looters were regarded as scum by soldiers throughout the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. A soldier might regard himself as entitled to loot because he had risked his life in battle, but a civilian had no such entitlement as far as a soldier was concerned. Looters were often chased off, or run down by cavalry, or stung up from a tree, or given a good beating as a warning. Wellington had very strong views on looting and maintained a strict system of Provost Marshals to keep order.
There was another slim hope for the incapacitated soldiers. Sometimes the army remained in place. Musicians were often employed during battle as primitive stretcher bearers and would often search the battlefield for injured who might still be alive.
As you can see though, for the injured getting off the battlefield and getting treated was vital. It could often a case of looking out for yourself. Men performed feats of endurance that sound shocking to us today.
That first big problem of getting off the field was complicated just by the logistics of it. Men performed feats of endurance that sound shocking to us today. Men with lost limbs would force themselves up, and to travel to get help must have been agonising. Most regiments had some form of band and would employ bandsmen as stretcher barriers. These were not the modern, lightweight easily portable versions we know today. Some were canvass with long heavy poles. They were hard to handle and very heavy. They were an encumbrance. Some regiments used a simply canvass sling under a light weight pole. This was more comfortable and quicker, but it swayed and compressed the injured body. Neither method was waterproof, nor did it keep the injured warm and stop them going into shock.
For Scottish regiments, the long sashed kilt might be a very useful alternative. An officers kilt could be used as a soft carrying blanket. A popular senior officer supported in his kilt by four strong Scotsmen could be moved fairly quickly off the field and in some comfort. Of course an unpopular officer might find it difficult to attract attention and end up dying a lonely death. Carts were common off the battlefield, but not on it. The forward thinking French experimented with ambulances.
Treatment naturally depended on the nature of the injury. As this was the age before the discovery of infection or antibiotics or anaesthesia, treatment tending to be more based on surgery and home remedy than what we would consider appropriate today. Surgeons should have had a personal kit containing their favoured surgical implements although difficulties on campaign sometimes left them without their kit. These kits were usually boxes or rolled hand bags or grips, usually contained a knife or scalpel of some kind, a saw, various hooks and retractors, and the only really effective pain killer of the day an opiate called Laudanum (containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight, equivalent to 1% morphine). This was an opiate, but nothing like as effective as modern morphines, or ethers, or even cocaine or chloroform. When and how to intervene was very much based on the judgement of the individual surgeon; there were no standard clinical guidelines. Some surgeons, particularly very clever ones with good analytical data to back it up (like Dr Gutherie) were convinced immediate intervention was essential, as quickly as possible with only a small pause to stabilise the patient. Others preferred to wait longer to allow the patient to recover more before surgery, especially in the case of amputations. This was risky either way. Lacking saline, the patient was at risk of immense fluid loss, and delays could exacerbate the problem. Besides waiting increased the risk of infection. Of course, the surgeon was unlikely to sterilise his implements or even wash his hands between operations, so infection during surgery was frighteningly common. It was a common prayer across the various armies “god save me from the surgeons knife.”
None of this should mislead you into thinking that surgery was mere butchery. It most certainly wasn’t. Circulation was well understood, and there would be no recourse to magic, or horoscopes or balancing of humours as might have been the case until fairly close to the period. Bones could be set with skill, and even fractured skulls could be repaired. If you have seen the film “Master and Commander” or read any of the excellent Jack Aubrey books, there is an excellent scene where Dr Maturin replaces a fragment of skull in a comatose patient with a piece of coin. This is based on historical accounts and was a surprisingly complicated operation.
One of the other big tools missing from the surgeons arsenal was his ever present companion of the future – the Anaesthetist. The anaesthetist does far, far more than put a patient to sleep. They perform many essential functions; keeping a patient deeply asleep, with muscles chemically relaxed to the point where unaided breathing would be impossible. This state of muscled relaxed unconsciousness, along with antibiotics & pain control is one of the great foundations stones of sophisticated modern medicine. Without it, surgery is extremely difficult.
Still, the surgeon did have some other tools at his disposal. There was the trusty wooden spoon and gag to ensure that a patient didn’t bite their tongue off during the operation. Alcohol was eagerly sought by patients. A bottle of rum or pint of brandy or even both would be considered as good for the pain as anything else. Some surgeons still used tar or hot iron for cauterisation but it was dying out. Fine silk stitches were used to close arteries and even hold falls of skin over the exposed ends of the stump of an amputation. Various poultices were used, some of which were honey based and could be surprisingly effective as honey is anti-bacterial. Leeches were dying out, but that’s actually a pity as they and maggots could be used to remove dead tissue or reduce bleeding. Drums were sometimes beaten during surgery as the noise and distraction could help. If all else failed, surgeons often exhorted soldiers not to show weakness in front of captured enemy soldiers, and to be quiet so they didn’t let their country down.
False teeth could be crafted to help with primitive dental surgery, and of course wooden legs or fake hands were created for patients. The richer the patient, the more elaborate the finished product might be.
The later you reached the surgeon of course, the more tired he was likely to be. This meant more mistakes, with knives and saws getting more and more blunt, and all the implements getting increasingly dirty. Some surgeons after Waterloo were awake and operating for days in a row, often by lamp light. Patient mortality rates were enormous. Busy surgeons were known to hold their surgical knives between their teeth to free up hands to tie off arteries.
Whether intentional or not, triage systems were adopted by almost all surgeons. No surgeon could afford to spend hours of time trying to save a hopeless case. In the time wasted on a patient that couldn’t be helped no matter what, he might lose other patients that could have been helped. Whilst sensible, it was hard on the doctors to have to leave soldiers to die, often alone in agony.
Walking wounded would sometimes be dispatched back to full hospitals in cities like Brussels. Typically in a battle, a regiment would set up a dressing station close to where the battalion was deployed. There would be large field style regimental or army hospitals behind the main lines. The bulk of the casualties would be aiming to be dealt with either at the dressing station or the regimental field hospital. Going to a main army hospital was not necessarily a good idea. They were sometimes well equipped but some were little better than death traps. Unsanitary and often made up of buildings like monasteries occupied for the purpose, infection and disease ran rampant in them. The quality of medical staff varied wildly, ranging from competent to unqualified drunken orderlies who had somehow got themselves appointed “surgeons assistants” or “surgeons mates.” These men would be an eclectic mix of ambitious, but poor soldiers without the money, education and influence to become regimental surgeons, or they were sometimes the purest dregs who preyed on the helpless to rob or rape.
Rich officers would sometimes prefer to get comfortable private lodgings and a personal physician to attend them. This greatly increased their odds of survival. Rank did interfere with the triage system as well. Some surgeons would instinctively leave wounded troops to treat senior officers. Often this was because they recognised that the senior officer was more important to the overall war at that moment. No one could sensibly argue that if Wellington or other vital officers were injured then they shouldn’t take priority. The loss of Wellington would have meant the destruction of the Allied army. What was considered less appropriate was surgeons leaving off treatment of NCO’s and officers to treat lightly injured generals – usually to secure professional advancement or a lucrative source of income.
Like all men under fire, some surgeons or assistants would not be willing to move forward to treat injured men. This is understandable. Humans in battle get flooded with adrenaline. They often suffer from a kind of tunnel vision. Creative thought becomes more difficult and the mind defaults to the practiced and well known. It isn’t a case of cowardice. These were soldiers under fire; they were simply facing the immense stress of battle. In some cases it would be clear that moving to help would be suicide anyway. Cannon fire couldn’t distinguish between medical staff and active combatants, so the exposed forward slopes were a risky proposition for anyone at Waterloo. Even if cannon fire wasn’t a problem, it was accepted that pretty much anyone on the battle field was a legitimate target for the enemy, so riding down a group of soldiers treating the injured would be considered good sport by many cavalry.
Dreaded nearly above all was the amputation, especially of the leg. An arm could be surprisingly easy to lop off. Especially below the elbow. Some men declined the offer and preferred to live with a shattered hand or arm, and take their chances on gangerine developing later. Surgeons didn’t immediately jump to amputation. Arm wounds especially were managed without amputation if at all possible, since they had a better chance of positive recovery, although opinions were mixed. Dr Larrey said
[QUOTE] If it should be said that the amputation of a limb is a cruel and dangerous operation, and one always fraught with grave consequences for the patient who is left in a mutilated condition, and that for these reasons there is more honour to be gained by preserving the limb than by amputating it, however skilfully and successfully done, the reply which admits of no denial is that amputation is an operation which offers a chance of recovery to an unfortunate individual, whose death appears certain by any other method of treatment.[END QUOTE]
A good example was Wellingtons staff aide Fitzroy Somerset, who lost his arm at Waterloo, but carried on a military career. He would eventually become Lord Raglan and his incompetent command in the Crimean War would lead to thousands of unnecessary casualties.
Cases where there were extensive joint injuries, complex compound fractures near joints, or where there lacerated vessels and nerves, were all high priorities for amputation. Leaving the limb intact would guarantee infection and death. You can see that the doctors in the profession were acutely aware of the risks of various outcomes and genuinely wanted to do the best they could for their patients. Some debated whether to amputate immediately on the battlefield, or wait till the patient was stabilised and then operate a few days later.
Cavalry swords and cannon shot sometimes did such a neat job of taking off an arm, that the surgeons main job was just tidying up, and monitoring for signs of fever or infection. Men like Nelson lost arms and eyes and continued to have distinguished military careers. The Royal Navy almost certainly never sent out a warship where at least some officers hadn’t lost body parts.
But many injuries were far worse. These were the terrible leg wounds that could require an amputation well up the limb, or worse at near the hip. The leg has the great femoral artery in it. A high amputation required that artery to be cut. Bleeding would be massive and the operation itself could be hugely traumatic. There’s a harrowing quote from Sgt Thomas Jackson in Spain.
[QUOTE] They had got me fixed upon the end of a large barrack room table, sitting upright, with my legs having down. A basin was brought for me to drink out of it. I said, Sir let me have a good draught. He poured me out nearly a pint of rum which I eagerly drank off. In an instant, it raised my spirits to an invincible courage. The sergeant was preparing to blindfold me. Oh no I said, I shall sit still and see as well as the rest. One of the surgeons sat on a stool to hold the leg steady, the second ripped up my trousers and took down the stocking low enough, then he waited on the head surgeon. The tourniquet being placed painfully tight above the knee, he put his hand under the calf of the leg and setting the edge of the knife on the shin bone, at one heavy, quick stroke, drew it around till it met the shin one again…. the blood quickly following the knife spread around and formed like a beautiful red fan, downwards. Next the surgeon with his hand forced the flesh up towards the knee to make way for the saw. When the saw was applied, I found it extremely painful; it was worn out. It stuck as a bad saw would when sawing a green stick. I said Oh Sir have you not a better saw? He said he was sorry he had not, as they were all worn out. The bone got through, the next thing to be done was still more painful. That of tying up the ligatures. Then followed the drawing down of the flesh to cover the end of the bone, and tightly strapped there with strips of sticking plaster. After this strongly bandaged. And thus ended the operation which lasted about half an hour. [END QUOTE]
The Sgt was lucky. The higher up the leg the amputation, the more likely was death. It should come as no surprise that a leg amputation had an extremely high mortality rate. 40-50% was not unknown. Phantom pain was a problem, infection was almost certain, and complications and ultimately mortification was highly likely. Still, both Dr Larrey and the British surgeon David Brownrigg managed to perform an operation at the hip with a patient surviving. An almost unheard of event. The agony would leave the individual with immense mental trauma. Life long suffering was the result. And all of that, was being done by a doctor trying his best to save your life and help you live in the best condition you could. Today we would regard this as brutal torture, but in 1815 this was state of the art battlefield medicine. Still doctors like Dr Gutherie were using these experiences and collecting statistics on outcomes to make huge advances. Understanding about infection was boosted, as Gutherie demonstrated that mortality rates for early amputation were far lower than in patients who were moved to larger hospitals first. Soldiers were better off having their limbs amputated on the field of Waterloo, rather than being evacuated to a hospital in Brussels where mortality rates climbed sharply. Guthrie was keen on splinting where possible to avoid amputation. If possible wounds were probed with forceps and foreign objects removed, including not just bullets but also coins, clothing and teeth driven into wounds by blast damage. It was exceptionally painful, but if it could spare a man an amputation, deep probing was preferred.
In any case of damage to the torso or head, amputation wasn’t an option anyway so probing, surgical excision and stitching were the main viable treatment paths. Whilst injuries to the torso, especially lungs were viewed as fatal, surgeons still made valiant efforts with surprising success. Fractured skulls were difficult to treat, but it was done with care and sometimes positive results. Even brain surgery could be attempted, especially in cases where death was otherwise certain.
Much depended on the skill and ambition of the surgeon, plus how much time he had available. Guthrie and Lowrey both performed complex bowel and abdominal surgery, and Lowrey managed to extract musket balls from men’s lungs, sometimes removing ribs to gain access. In circumstances like this, we can see why soldiers were terrified of the fate that might await them.
Of course infection was incredibly common. I won’t go into all the types and effects, but this was all before Joseph Lister did his pioneering work on antiseptics and infection control in the mid Victoria era. Dirty instruments and poor dressings were the norm. Surgeons and assistants rarely washed hands between patients, sharing the same instruments used between operations. Face masks and sterile gloves were simply unknown. Often honey based herbal poultices were the best anti infection treatments around.
So that gives you the picture of what was suffered after Waterloo. Surgeons worked for days on improvised tables under lamp light. They worked till they were dropping with exhaustion. Clothes became stiff with blood and some could hardly move fingers. For every brilliant Dr Guthrie there were hundreds of other competent unsung surgical heroes and hundreds more inept butchers, or complete novices learning surgeon on wounded men under pressure.
Such was the price to be paid. Mars had wrecked havoc on the men in battle, now they were in the hands of Apollo and Dr Guthrie. Looking at this in reflection, it nearly beggars belief anyone would be a soldier. You can see why Napoleon’s glory was seen as having too high a price in the views of many of the time.
Fortunately for soldiers of the Victorian age, some immense changes were coming. Books would be written setting out the lessons in surgery and treatment learned at such high a cost. Many surgeons had died with their men in battle like Sir William De Lancey. Others like Dr Lowrey were captured by the Prussians, although fortunately he was released. Guthrie would go on to have a brilliant career, become a fellow of the Royal Society and President of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was offered a knighthood, but pleaded poverty to turn it down.
The surgeons would see an increasing climb in the respect and influence of the profession, whilst the physicians had to scramble to mend their out of touch, hands off reputation. The field of Waterloo would not be cleared of dead and wounded for 12 days. Many wounded simply died of dehydration. Civilian sightseers were often shocked but I can’t imagine how the surgeons coped and went on to live with themselves in the aftermath of battle. Every doctor wants to preserve his patients life as best as possible but battlefields do not allow that guarantee. Even in modern medicine we cannot guarantee that people will live, but for the surgeons of the time at Waterloo, they had to watch probably hundreds men who were desperate, die. And they couldn’t help them, no matter how good they were with the knife. It must have lived with them for the rest of their lives. I don’t know what impact that might have had on them. Still many many fortunate men like Sgt Lawrence walked towards Paris, doubtless glad that their prayer “God save me from the surgeons knife” was answered.
- The position of the French attack.
- Charge of the Scots Grey, and British Heavy Cavalry Brigade.
- Lady Elizabeth Butler “Charge of the Scots Greys.”
- French chaos, and the grand battery overrun.
- We shall match them with our lancers: French counter charge.
- The day grinds on.
- The greatest blunder & the greatest bravery
- The fall of La Hay Sainte, last throw of the dice and the Imperial Guard
- The advance, the Prussians, and the last stand of the Guard
- Night falls.
- Reflections & post script.
Finally we come to the end of tWaterloo
At the end of our last full episode, the battle was hanging in the balance. The French had attacked Hougoumont, hammered the allied line with the grand battery, seen the ominous signs of the arrival of the Prussians, and had started the great assault with General D’Erlon’s corp. This attack had fallen on the weak point of the allied line and seemed posed to break through.
At roughly 14:18 the Dutch Belgian troops had broken under immense French pressure. A 250 yard gap opened in the Allied line. In desperation, Lt General Sir Thomas Picton waved his umbrella to signal the advance and his Scots moved to plug the gap. 3,000 troops poured a staggering volley into the attackers.
As the French struggled to reform after the struggle over the ridge and through the hedge & sunken lane it appeared only a thin line of mostly Scotsmen were left to hold the allies together. Picton yelled at the Scots to charge and they did. The Highlanders advanced with the bayonet into the teeth of the enemy despite being desperately outnumbered. Picton himself was shot dead, a grievous loss to the troops. But there was a hope for the allies…..the cavalry was literally on the way.
The charge of the heavy brigade.
The French could feel the victory in the palm of their hand. If they could just but close the fist. But now, unknown to them, the Allied counter attack was coming. The British cavalry under the Earl of Uxbridge had been carefully hidden behind the ridge. Two Brigades of British Heavy Cavalry made up of regiments from England, Ireland, and Scotland prepared to charge the French through the smoke. The 1st Brigade, known as the Household Brigade, commanded by Major-General Lord Edward Somerset, consisted mostly of guards regiments: the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), and the 1st (King’s) Dragoon Guards. The 2nd Brigade, also known as the Union Brigade, commanded by Major-General Sir William Ponsonby, and was so called as it consisted of an English, the 1st (The Royals); a Scottish, 2nd (‘Scots Greys’); and an Irish, 6th (Inniskilling); regiment of heavy dragoons. The Earl of Uxbridge had been carefully drilling them ready for the battle.
The charge was devastating and made with exquisite timing. Most of the cavalry officers were death or glory types who lived by the maxim that a cavalry officer who wasn’t dead by 30 was a failure. Captain Verner of the 7th Hussars wrote in his diary that [QUOTE] There is no part of action more disagreeable than looking on[END QUOTE]. It wasn’t just the men that suffered in the charge. The poor horses too could be killed by unfortunate shots, and even the horses that lived might be spooked by gunfire in civilian life as much as any veteran soldier could be. Captain Verner’s horse lived with him for another 20 years but remained forever skittish at the sound of gunfire.
Whatever their feelings of the men and officers of the cavalry, they were hugely outnumbered but they were also thirsting to unleash a glorious charge. Even the Earl of Uxbridge was swept up in the excitement. Instead of staying back to control and organise he would be in at the death as the popular Victorian cavalry saying went.
It is absolutely true that the British cavalry were often wild, undisciplined and persistently unwilling to leave reserves or to stop a charge and reform. Wellington certainly considered them vastly inferior to the French in terms of discipline or organisation and felt that the problem got worse the more of them there were.
Still this was their great moment. The charge was devastating and made with exquisite timing. They swept aside the surprised force of French cavalry who had supported the assault, and slammed into the French just as the attackers were forming up after gaining the ridge. British officers, often expert riders and steeple chasers well used to jumping dangerous hedges during long fox hunts were in their element, cheerfully calling the orders to charge.
Now the French were wrong footed. They were trying to reform after their almost successful attack to push it to a conclusion, but now to their shock Frenchmen were falling dead with sabre cuts, and the British Heavies crashed into them. These big men on big horses could weigh up to half a tonne and were easily capable of riding a man down and crushing him, before laying into his fellows with vicious sabre cuts. These weren’t the prime and proper gentlemen followed by silent but disciplined yeoman as is sometimes portrayed in art work of the period. These were violent men in a violent age. For example Corporal John Shaw of the Life Guard Cavalry. He was a big, tough man. A cockney street fighter turned prize fighter who had floored an English bareknuckle boxing championship contender in a brutal one sided 30 minute bout. He had been picked by the Colonel of the Life Guard Cavalry because the colonel wanted just such tough, hard men to fight for him. Before Waterloo he had looted the supply wagons for an immense amount of drink, but no one would dare cross him. He was described as swaying by the time he climbed into the saddle. He would be much admired for his furious fighting, and the Victorians would whitewash his personality to fit the clean cut stoic lower class yeoman image they preferred. The reality was that he was a violent drunk who killed a lot of Frenchmen in a drunken rage before being cut down because the drink slowed his wits.
To face the charge of the Scots Greys was especially nasty, and behind them came the Highlanders to support their countrymen. The moment is immortalised in the extremely famous painting, Charge of the Greys by Lady Elizabeth Butler. On the podcast website in the art section is a copy of the Charge of the Greys. Just go to the main menu, select Artwork and her name.
If you can, open it up now and have a look at it. I will do a full episode on Lady Butler. She is a important painter of the Victorian period and frankly I don’t think I’ve emphasised enough yet just how important art work was to Victorian culture. Much more than it is today, although that is probably a reflection of the insipid talentless non-sense that often passes for modern art. Anyway, on the podcast website in the art section is a copy of the Charge of the Greys.
Right so hopefully you are looking at the painting. If you were a middle class late Victorian, you would almost certainly have either seen this painting, or at least a print of it, or know of it from illustrations especially if you or you husband moved in military circles. It was carefully designed. Lady Butler loved painting military scenes. She was very talented at capturing a feeling on the canvass. This painting gives you the feeling that the charge is flying towards you out of the canvass. It bursts with life. It captures the unstoppable quality of the charge. There are no enemies, and everyone is displaying the appropriate heroism and excitement, with a dashing square jawed officer right there front and centre. That might seem naive to us in our much more cynical age, but this painting was a cornerstone myth of Waterloo for the Victorians. It has graced book covers and articles about Waterloo. There is little in the way of smoke or confusion, the ground is too level and dry, some of the horses are in anatomically impossible positions, and there’s no drunken Corporal Shaw but as art it shows how some Victorians wanted to see their ancestors. This is a full bore celebration of the actions of the Scots Greys. The Scots and English in this myth are indivisibly British.
Also don’t forget that Waterloo was a major battle that had entered national myth, but it was before the age of battlefield photography. Paintings and illustrations offered the Victorians a way to see the battles or distant countries.
The reality of the charge was grim. The French gains were lost. Often stuck in large columns or out of formation in the open, they were unable to form squares to repel the cavalry. Really the French attack had actually been made with too many men in one formation. It was at this point Ney should have had a reserve of infantry, cavalry and horse artillery ready to support the attack and protect his troops from the allied counter attack. He should also have at least seized the farm of La Haye Sainte in a combined arms attack to support the main assault.
Now though the French had to suffer the consequences. They were ridden down, pushed back into the valley and butchered. Corporal Shaw was seen to spilt the head of a French cavalryman in half with a single blow. He was eventually overpowered somewhere in the valley bottom, lashing out at his enemies. It is thought that he eventually bled to death overnight near La Hay Sainte.
For Sergeant Ewart, the charge was one of revenge. He was extremely attached to his new officer, Cornet Kinchant. Against the sergeants better judgement, Kinchant had taken a French officer prisoner. The officer had begged for his life to be spared. The prisoner waited till Kinchant was distracted, then shot him in the back with a concealed pistol. A violation of the accepted rules of war at the time. An enraged Ewart listened to the officer’s second attempt to surrender. Then he told him to “ask mercy from god for the devil a bit of it will you get from my hands” before cutting him down. Kinchants death affected the sergeant for years to come, but for now he was out for more payback. He joined the frenzy of the charge. He was determined to take vengeance and he plunged into the enemy. The fight was brutal as he struggle against soldiers of the 45 Regiment. They had battle honours stretching across Napoleon’s finest victories and fought hard. Sergeant Ewart was almost stabbed in the groin. In return he cut down the bearer of the Eagle of the 45 Reg. A lance was thrown at him like a spear, but with lightning reflexes he parried it with his sword. He killed two more enemy whilst under fire, then he swept up the Eagle. He and the greys had achieved what few soldiers in history could claim. They had taken one of the Emperors own eagles in battle. It was returned to Edinburgh Castle and displayed with honours, but for Ewart he was always clear he had done it for revenge not glory.
Again this touches on an interesting psychological trait that we see in history with soldiers. The importance of the personal, the comrades who matter more than the abstract glory or rewards. We can also see how the events of battles would become the inspirational legends of regiments and armies in the future.
This personal fury was sweeping through the British cavalry. If you have only ever considered the British as polite or reserved, even in war time you might find the reality is much more complicated. Like anyone a British soldier could easily give into the emotions of war. It was not only stressful, but filled with fear and adrenaline. The stoic discipline of the British could sometimes shift into an unexpected battle fury that was terrible to behold. The Connaught Rangers, the Black Watch, and many other regiments could all claim to be as fine a set of disciplined soldiers as a general could wish, yet when their blood was up they could turn into savage close quarter fighters in a way that utterly shocked their enemies.
Now the fury of the Heavy cavalry including the Scots Greys was seeking an outlet. Even their senior officers were swept up in the madness. Shouts ran out for them to charge the Grand Battery on the French hill. This was madness indeed. The senior officers should have been sounding the recall, to reform and rest and be useful to Wellington later. But now Wellington’s worst fears about indiscipline were to be realised. Charge, charge. The sound swept up and down the line. A British colonel, with both his hands blown off, took his horses reins between his teeth and led his men up the slope into the Grand Battery. Terrified French gunners were by now blasting away indiscriminately at the mass of men and horses in the valley, uncaring if they hit friends or foes in their desperation to protect themselves.
As Napoleon watched the cavalry overrun his guns he was heard to exclaim in amazed horror;
[QUOTE] “Those terrible Greys, how they fight” [END QUOTE]
Somehow the Greys broke through the battery and the first and second lines. Killing was brutal and relentless. A mad bloodlust seemed to have seized them, but they had badly over reached. The momentum of the charge was fading. Veteran French Lancers and Cuirassiers who had stayed in reserves could see the tired and disorganised British cavalry were ready to be taken. They made disciplined moves to get between the British and their way back to the safety of the Allied lines. Then they sprang the trap. The damage these counter charging lancers did was calculated and devastating. It was so devastating that it caused the British to readopt the lance into many cavalry regiments after the war. Cavalrymen who fell from their mounts were usually dispatched by vengeful French infantry. The battle was becoming intensely personal now. The British began a desperate fighting retreat, during which many frantic combats took place and Corporal Shaw probably received his death blow.
The British Heavies made their fighting retreat. They somehow struggled back to the ridge. They had saved the Allied line from cracking and shattered General D’Erlon’s corp, but they had suffered dreadfully for it. The Heavies were reduced to below 50% effective strength. The French had lost around 4,000 men from D’Erlons corp and would take hours to rally and reform. The Grand Battery had also suffered with 7 heavy guns knocked out of action. With Hougoumont sucking 13,000 French troops into doomed attacks, Napoleon was running short on infantry and was basically back where he started at 11:30. All the deaths so far were for nothing.
Not that Hougoumont showed any signs of stopping. The French belated brought up some cannon to assist them. Probably they probably should have brought up two heavy guns early in the morning. The cannon set fire to the buildings. Wellington sent a message ordering his men to hold on even if the whole place burned down around them. When their ammunition began to run short, desperate resupply missions were made under heavy fire. Allied Riflemen targeted enemy officers to heighten confusion, and then if possible looted the rich corpses.
Napoleon changed his focus. He now understood that La Hay Sainte was the key to attacking Wellington’s centre. He ordered Marshal Ney to take it. The marshal selected 7000 men and another brutal battle within a battle was soon raging around the smaller farm. Again ammo was running short. The riflemen defending the farm fought with tenacity, picking up rifles from dead comrades to fire more quickly. They were repeatedly attack and the buildings set on fire. Wellington ordered his some of his reserves forward, including the fighting Irish Iniskillens.
Above them, on the French ridge, around 16:15, Marshal Ney was about to reach a fateful decision. He seems to have come to the conclusion that after their serious losses, the Allies were starting to retreat. He decided that it was time to really break them. It was time for the French cavalry to conduct a massed charge on an epic scale. He ordered a massed attack by virtually the entire French cavalry against the Allied centre where D’Erlon and his men had attacked. Worse, a misunderstood conversation meant that the Imperial Guard reserve cavalry were also added to the charge.
Napoleon was horrified and helpless. He couldn’t recall them in time. The charge once launched could not be stopped. Thousands of men and horses swarmed across the valley. Onlookers were awestruck. Ensign Gronow 1st Foot Guards recalled
[QUOTE]Not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You perceived at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which ever advancing, glittered like a storming wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. [END QUOTE]
Officers responded quickly. Squares were formed and gunners began blasting away frantically. Wellington had established a forward gun line and men like Captain Mercer deployed their horse artillery smoothly and opened up on the oncoming mass.
[QUOTE] The effect was terrible. Nearly the whole leading rank fell at once; and the round shot penetrating the column carried confusion throughout its extent. The discharge of every gun was followed by a fall of men and horses like that of grass before the mowers scythe. [END QUOTE]
Doesn’t that remind you a little bit of the first world war. As the French wave approached the earth itself seemed to shake. The allied gunners had to abandon their guns and seek cover with the infantry or hiding under their gun carriages as the horsemen swept past. Yet as the cavalry crested over the ridge, seemingly overrunning the enemy, they saw a terrible sight. 22-25 squares of steady, unbroken allied infantry in a chequerboard formation. Ready to repel them. The French cavalry couldn’t know it, but they were about to be part of an epic military disaster.
We’ve already gone into a ton of depth about Waterloo so far. I’ve discussed Ney’s state of mind in launching the charge, and I don’t think you need to know about every single wave of attacks the cavalry went through or I’ll have to do another two episodes. So in summary, the French cavalry made a series of death or glory attacks on the various British and Allied squares. Napoleon couldn’t stop the carnage, he had to send in more cavalry to support it. But they were helpless. Men were shot from saddles. Horses killed, maimed or terribly injured. The French couldn’t force their way into the squares unless the first wild rush sent the horses barrelling into the squares before they realised the danger. This was certain death for rider and mount unless the opposition panicked. Wellington had planned for this by placing his steady British infantry squares at the front. Still the French inflicted heavy casualties. Horses won’t force themselves onto sharp obstacles so most French cavalry diverted around the squares, flowing like water round rocks. As they did they were shot down. Any Allied soldier not safely in square was hacked down. By 17:00 over 9,000 French cavalry were facing over 22,000 well formed infantry supported by the final reserve British Heavy cavalry. It was pointless and doomed. Still, it was not all going the Allies way. Men in square were easy targets for the artillery and hundreds of allied soldiers were mown down. In the centre near La Hay Sainte, the Irishmen of the Inniskillings were dreadfully exposed to over 32 French guns. They were repeatedly charged by desperate French cavalry and then hammered by the guns for nearly three hours. I cannot conceive of the horror of this moment for the Inniskillings. WW1 has accounts like the Somme where men knew they were charging a hopeless position and almost certain death, but to have to stand in a square in a bright red uniform on a sunny day whilst cannons blast at you for three hours seems almost infinity worse. Napoleon certainly constantly seemed to believe that the British were about to break. That nothing and no one could take this punishment. He was far more focused on countering the approaching Prussians. Yet the British did stand. Casualties could be up to 2/3 of a regiment, but they wouldn’t break.
The battle was becoming a haze of fog and a almost meaningless noise of guns and muskets and screams. Marshal Ney led at least 6 cavalry charges in person. Gradually some French guns were moved up to support the cavalry, increasing the British and Dutch casualties. The pressure was biting hard on Wellington who was anxiously looking at his watch and preying for the Prussians to arrive. The Allies might not break, but they might be wiped out by the endless artillery pounding.
The Prussians were approaching Napoleon’s right through the village of Placenoitt. They drove out the French defenders and were poised to begin to fall onto Napoleon’s flank and rear. By 18:00 Napoleon was getting desperate. He sent 4,750 of his elite young guard on a near suicide mission to retake the village and hold off the Prussian army. They were under the command of the capable and brutal General Duhesme, and were eager for glory, and the promotion it would bring to the infamous Old Guard. Within 30 minutes they had retaken the village in hand to hand combat with the Prussians. The fighting would continue to rage and they were soon re-enforced by some of the Old Guard themselves. The Prussians vented their fury by immediately killing the wounded or prisoners by hanging or cutting their throats. The French responded in kind.
Meanwhile the pounding continued. Poor Sergeant Lawrence of the 40th who we met last episode had been in square near the Inniskillings so he too was stuck under heavy artillery fire. Then he received dreadful news. He was next in line to pick up the regimental colours after the latest standard bearer died. He did so without enthusiasm, knowing he was now target number one for the enemy gunners. By 1830, the critical La Hay Sainte had fallen to the French. The isolated Irishmen were almost alone and dead.
In the intense pressure the Cumberland 7th Hussars decided the battle was lost and began to retreat to Brussels. Allied regiments of Dutch and Belgiums were losing men to desertion at an alarming rate despite the heroics of various individual regiments. The road to Brussels was crammed with deserters, fugitives and wounded men.
Despite everything there was now a real danger that the Allied army would finally crumple under the immense pressure. A blundered attempt to retake La Hay Sainte resulted in yet another battalion being annihilated by French cavalry. The Irish Inniskillings had lost all their officers, and taken over 463 casualties out of the original force of 698 men.
At 19:30 the critical farms of La Hay Sainte and Plaicenoitt were in French hands. Wellington had only a handful of cavalry left in reserve. He was like an exhausted boxer on the ropes. The Allied line was in real crisis. Some British battalions were down to around 100 men out of their starting figures of around 700. Ammunition was critically short in some places. Now came Napoleon’s last big decision. Call off the battle and prepare a managed retreat or risk everything in one last gamble. Perhaps one last attack by the Imperial Guard would win the day. The Allies had been under fire for 9 hours, and Napoleon was at his heart always a gambler. He would stake everything on one last throw of the dice.
As the Prussians began another assault on Placenoitt and some Prussian regiments finally arrived on Wellingtons furthest left, Napoleon prepared to launch the Imperial Guard at Wellingtons almost broken centre. He loved the Guards, his Grumblers and they loved him. Everyone else was expected to address Napoleon with full pomp and title but not the Guard – they were allowed the simple Mon Empereur. Yet this was a cruel way to treat the Guard. Napoleon was gambling their lives probably pointlessly. They were only sent in to seal a final victory or cover the army from decisive defeat. Now with only limited support the out numbered guard were being sent to achieve what D’Erlon couldn’t but they were to do it with half the numbers and the battlefield now flooding with Prussians.
The advance was indeed a magnificent sight. Formed up in disciplined squares, arms shouldered and immaculate uniforms gleaming in the sun, this was perhaps as close as history got to the fantasy ideal presented in computer games and films. Wellington knew the advance of the Guard was a sign of utter desperation. Worse, as they advanced Napoleon told them a lie, that Grouchy had arrived with reinforcements. Cheers greeted the news and great cries went up. The outcome of Waterloo had already been essentially decided when the Allies weathered the crisis of the massed cavalry and the onslaught on their centre at 18:00. The Guard were an hour too late to swing the balance. And yet, oh and yet everyone knew that this was the Imperial Guard. They had never really known defeat, so if anyone could perform a miracle it would be them. If they broke the thin British and Dutch lines then perhaps the shaken Allied line would disintegrate in panic, leaving nothing for the Prussians to rescue. Yet even now confusion reigned. It is not cleared who exactly bungled the orders but rather than delivering a hammer blow at a few critical points, the Guard came up in an uncoordinated attacks, falling on the enemy in distinct waves. This meant that they were actually fighting outnumbered 10-1. It was hopeless. As intimidating as the Guard were, they noticed the almost silence from the British line. Marshal Buguead recalled
[QUOTE] When about 1,000 yards from the English line our soldiers got agitated and exchanged their thoughts; they hurried their march which began to get disorderly. The silent English, with ordered arms, looked in their impassive stillness, like a long red wall – an imposing spectacle, which never failed to impress the young soldiers. [END QUOTE]
The British held their fire till the enemy were barely 40 paces away and then as the saying goes, they unleashed hell on the them. French and British Horse Artillery added to the smoke and noise. One awestruck onlooker described the sight as like watching a violent storm filled with thunder and lightning breaking out on the ridge. In such circumstances, the odds suddenly seemed not to matter. Despite horrific losses, the Guard were causing a ripple of chaos. Some brave Dutch Belgium gunners dragged a couple of guns onto the Guard’s flank and blasted them forcing the French Guard Grenadiers back, but a British bayonet counter charge was driven off and almost unbelievably the chaos it caused in Humbts Brigade almost broke them. Some Dutch and Brunswick regiments were on the verge of disintergrating. If the Guard had their cavalry support with them, perhaps this really would have cracked Wellington after all, but Ney had killed them with his earlier blundering. Still the line held, pulled itself together and the first wave was beaten off. The next wave finally arrived with very limited cavalry support. It was quickly shattered by massed volleys from concealed British troops of Halkats and Maitlands Brigades, followed by a swift bayonet charge as the British took the fighting hand to hand. 300 Frenchmen were killed in the first minute alone. As that wave was finally beaten off, a last wave appeared to attack Wellingtons left centre. The Duke had no more cards to play, Humbts brigade was still in disorder after the attacks, Halkats and Maitlands Brigades were likewise trying to reform from their bayonet charges, the Dutch Begliums were almost ready to bolt at the slightest new pressure and there was no cavalry reserve. If the next wave succeeded, the Guard really would have achieved the miracle and done the unthinkable, and broken Wellington. If that had happened the Allied army would certainly have fallen apart.
In this most desperate moment, the army was about to be saved by Lt Colonel Sir John Colbourne was commanding the 52nd. It was relatively fresh and he spotted the crisis point. Without orders, he seized the initiative and ordered the advance. The 52nd Reg alone were going to try to stop the last of the Imperial Guard alone in a daring flanking attack. Not only that but Colbourne had his men move with an almost intimidating parade ground perfection into a novel formation. Skirmishers out, then cheers and volleys. Somehow he got the battalion to reload and volley fire on the move before forming up four ranks deep instead of the usual two.
If you are not quite sure why this is so incredible, well perhaps you’ve seen on TV the Queen having the Colour Trooped in front of her. All those neat soldiers in red ranks, moving like clockwork toys. Now imagine them doing in a haze of smoke with cannon and muskets all around, as they died by the dozen and even somehow managing to reload a musket down the barrel, which is normally done when stationary, whilst on the march. But still perfectly moving in complex patterns. This was the perfection of the British military system of the early C19th century. When military theorists and reformers suggested improvements or changes or novel tactics, traditionalists would point to moments like this at Waterloo where the most perfect discipline and careful ranks turned the tide from a defeat to victory. The Guard was blasted away, and a cry went up. A cry unheard in the entire of Napoleon’s career. “La Garde Recule” The Guard is retreating. This was a thunderbolt to the French army. It had never happened. It couldn’t happen. Yet it did. Now the Guard were in retreat, and a heroic Dutch Belgium unit arrived on its flank to seal the deal.
Defeat was about to turn into a French disaster though. The Prussians were viciously attacking Placenoitt. This, Napoleon’s lies about Grouchy and now the retreat of the invincible Guard would turn this defeat into one of France’s greatest military disasters until the Franco Prussian Wars or Verdun in WW1. By 20:00 Prussian pressure took Placenoitt and the French survivors were ceasing to rally. The real possibility now became a certainty. The French army was actually going to scatter and break up to disappear into the countryside and cease to be a fighting force. A small section of the Guard was held back by the French HQ near La Belle Alliance, and Napoleon hoped to rally at least a fighting force behind them. It was too late. Wellington had ended up swept forward with the 52nd and after giving fulsome praise by his standards to Colbourne, he waved his hat and ordered a general advance. This was uncharacteristically risk as the French might well rally and counter attack what was a haphazard and reckless general advance. Still as the Duke said [QUOTE] Oh damn it, in for a penny, in for a pound. [END QUOTE] I suppose he was human after all.
Most of the French retreated except for a square of the old Guard. They were invited to surrender. Myth says that General Cambrone replied, “The Guard dies but it does not surrender.” He didn’t. He was called on to surrender and just said “Merde” In isolated spots, elements of the Old Guard held discipline and formation to cover the panic but most French troops who were in full flight.
Napoleon’s career was now basically over. The great victory of Waterloo rested in the hands of Wellington and Blucher. Over the next 200 years, hundreds of accounts would be written about Waterloo, who won, who did what, was it really a French defeat or a moment of bad luck, was it Marshal Ney’s fault or Napoleon’s, or Marshal Grouchy’s was it really the Prussians or was British steadiness the key? Was Wellington better than Napoleon? Was this a sign that the British were somehow superior to the French. These questions still rage to this day in books, magazines and documentaries.
For the Allied troops, the long day was ending. Many troops in Hougoumont just slumped down in the ruined buildings and tried to gather their wits or find food. The brave Irish of the Inniskillings could finally move from their position in square. Only 218 of the original 698 men were still alive.
All across the field junior officers had to step up to more senior rolls to fill the gaps created. Some had craved the opportunity for advancement, but it often came at the price of a friends death. Soldiers have to take care of themselves. Just because the battle was over, the responsibilities didn’t end. Men had to be gathered, food organised, places to sleep found, wounded to be treated. Many a wife was left a widow and I could spend hours listing the letters to wives expressing heartbreaking loss.
What about some of the people we’ve met? Sergeant Lawrence or Private Rose the former slave? What about Marshal Ney or Captain Mercier of the British Horse Artillery?
As is inevitable with history, we have much more information about the famous Marshal Ney than we do about many others. I’ll cover him in a wrap up when we cover the Congress of Vienna and the peace settlements. I feel that we have probably done nearly as much about the Napoleonic period as we need to for a grounding. We’ve still got a few key things to cover, including the medical episode, the Congress of Vienna, the Peterloo massacre in Britain and perhaps a quick canter through some bits and pieces. Once those are done, it means that the ground work for the podcast has been well and truly laid. We will finally be able to turn to one of the stars of the new age; Victoria herself.
What I’ve tried to do in these episodes is to lay out as much as I can the events of the battle without a national spin or gloss. I’ve tried especially to get you to see the real human face of battle. The excitement, the fear, the pain, the death, the horror and even some of the joys. I’ve also tried to emphasise that this battle had a long lasting impact into the Victorian period, including on the art work, the veteran soldiers who would now go out into the world to carve an Empire, and the institutional impact on the British army. The political consequences in France and across Europe would be immense.
I’d like to end by quickly finishing up with a post script about Sergeant Lawrence. He was clearly a brave soldier and a good NCO. He was a bit of a joker, and kept a trained chicken in his backpack to amuse the men. For him at least the story has a happy ending. The good sergeant arrived in Paris with the occupying Allied troops.
Outside the barrack gate was a market stall, owned by a gardener from St Germain-en-Laye and run by his daughter, Clotilde Clairet. Romance blossomed and Clotilde became an army wife
In winter of 1817 the couple were stationed in Glasgow when Lawrence received news that his father was very ill. Getting leave of absence, the couple made a six-week round trip to visit Lawrence’s family.
The arrival of Lawrence and a foreign wife caused uproar in the tiny village of Bryant’s Piddle. Both his elderly parents were overcome with emotion at the sight of a son they had never expected to see again. There were celebrations for several days and a stream of visitors.
By 1821, Lawrence’s service of 17 years and 7 months was over. Because his knee still carried a slug shot from Badajoz, he was given a pension for life of 9d a day. This was a far cry from the skinny, abused apprentice who had run away to join the army aged only 14. He was now a respected veteran standing 6’1” who had seen service in South America, North America, Spain, Belgium and France, a holder of the Silver Medal with no less than 10 clasps and he had born the colours at Waterloo. Few soldiers could claim the same.
Lawrence and his wife ran a prosperous public house in Studland near my home town of Poole in Dorset.
Clotilde’s died on 26 September 1853, and in his old age, Sgt Lawrence finally dictated his autobiography. The result is a fascinating window to the past and to one man’s life on the march. The Sgt died on 11 Nov 1869 and was given a funeral with full military honours. You will note that he survived well into the Victorian era and must have been bemused by some of the changes.
I hope you also remember me mentioning Pvt George Rose in episode 006. He was born as a slave in Jamaica but escaped in 1809. He somehow made it to London. He joined the 73rd Foot. He served in Ireland where he became a Methodist, then later in German and the Netherlands in 1813-1814. I said he was known to have been in the thick of combat at Quatre Bras, but today would be a new level of hell for the former slave turned soldier – all of his hopes and ambitions rested on surviving the day without being maimed or otherwise incapacited from service. Well, Pvt. Rose had a very hard day at Waterloo. He was with the 73rd. They suffered the 2nd highest rate of casualties during the day and had to hold off 11 French cavalry charges. Pvt. Rose was hit in the arm by gunshot and badly wounded. Despite this, he survived, although his arm was permanently weakened. He was part of the occupation of Paris and then transferred to the 42nd The Black Watch in 1817 when the 73rd disbanded he was sent on overseas campaigns in Ireland, Gibraltar, Corfu and Malta, getting promoted to corporal and then sergeant. By the time he was honourably discharged on medical grounds in 1837 he was probably the most senior black NCO in the British army, and he was considered a model soldier who was much admired. He was given a generous pension too. He was a devout methodist by then, and could read and write, unlike a lot of British soldiers. Years later in 1849 he returned to Jamaica as a missionary, and remained there until his death in 1873.
I wanted to finish this episode talking about Sgt Lawrence and Sgt Rose as you know I like to remind you that the past is people. Complex, and with all the amazing variety that is the hallmark of the human race. Each of the people involved in Waterloo has their own life that was lived in a unique way and I’ve selected those two different people as examples of how the reality was much complex and multifaceted than the simple “red vs blue” coats images that most people have of this period of history. We might not know their individual stories, but they were as real as you and I.
- How scared have you ever been in your life. For most people fear is something that is happening to us in circumstances that make us uncomfortable. For most of us we haven’t ever had the gut wrenching fear that goes with a threat to our lives. But for those who have it is an experience unlike any other. For the men about to fight in Waterloo they were knowing the full blast of that icy, gut wrenching fear. The only way I can describe it is knowing that you have to do something. You don’t want to do it perhaps. You know it might be dangerous. But there’s not avoiding it. It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are about to perhaps sit an exam, or propose to someone, or go to court. Well I can’t even imagine those feelings amount to anything like the feeling of standing in line as a Napoleonic Infantryman hearing the drums begin to beat. Seeing the Eagles or the banners raised high and the shouts of the officers “advance” Sergeants counting time. Drums beating the tempo. But for the thousands of men at Waterloo, that was exactly what happened. No one quite knows the exact time of the first attack the French made at Waterloo. But whatever happened. Whatever time it actually was, we do know that it was at Hougoumont.
- On the right was I Corps under d’Erlon with 16,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry, plus a cavalry reserve of 4,700. On the left was II Corps under Reille with 13,000 infantry, and 1,300 cavalry, and a cavalry reserve of 4,600 men. In the centre about the road south of the inn La Belle Alliance were a reserve including Lobau’s VI Corps with 6,000 men, and the 13,000 infantry of the crack Imperial Guard, and a cavalry reserve of 2,000. If you’ve listened to my previous episodes you will know why I said precise timings in battle are hard to judge.
- Whatever the precise time, the first proper French attack was to be against Hougemont. The plan was for it to be led by Prince Jeromes division. It was to be a faint attack that would draw off Wellingtons reserves. Then a grand battery pounding would weaken Wellingtons centre, followed by a massive attack by Reille on the left of La Hay Sainte and General d’Erlon on the right. d’Erlon would therefore be attacking Wellingtons left as Wellingtons centre collapsed, and the British flank and centre would be broken, pushing them into retreat to the sea and probably destruction.
- Things started badly for the French. If you had to pick a bad spot to be during the battle of Waterloo, then attacking Hougemont was probably high on the list for the French. I’ve called it a farm in the last episode or a fortified position which implies it was a small house perhaps with some fortifications. It was actually much more. It was turned into a miniature fortress.
- I’ve put a plan of the Hougemont complex on the website. That gives you an excellent outline of how the buildings stood. It is basically a square shaped series of buildings. All solidly stone built made up of a Great Barn, a 3 storey main house, a chapel and formidable wooden gates in stone arches. If this was all, it would be a horrible place to attack with just a musket and no armour. But it was far, far tougher. To one side was a surrounding 6ft high wall that created an enclosed garden. This was on the right hand side of the farm from the French point of view. Then around this was an orchard that was surrounded by a large thick hedge with gates in it. This was then surrounded by a wood. The attackers couldn’t see much through the smoke of battle, which meant they were stunned by finding the heavy defensive wall.
- Defending Hougemont were the 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment, with additional detachments of jägers and landwehr from von Kielmansegge’s 1st (Hanoverian) Brigade. The light company of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards under the command of Lt-Colonel Henry Wyndham, was also stationed in the farm and chateaux, and the light company of the 2nd Battalion, Third Guards, under Lt-Colonel Charles Dashwood in the garden and grounds. The two light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, First Guards were initially positioned in the orchard, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Saltoun. Lieutenant-Colonel James Macdonnell, Coldstream Guards, had overall command of 1,500 men at Hougoumont. He was ordered to hold it to the last.
- So to capture Hougemont, the French had to cross a wood, push through a thick hedge, then get through the Orchard, break through the outer walls or breech one of the great gates, all the while under heavy fire from the defenders, who included expert riflemen and some of the Elite British Guards Regiments. At the rear of the farm was a hidden sunken lane that could be used to move re-enforcements and ammunition to the defenders.
- If this is sounding like one of those horrific WW1 style attacks, then that is a little like what it was. The fighting in Hougemont was to be a brutal affair, hard fought on both sides with moments of intense heroism.
- The initial French units had no idea what they were in for though, and began the assault with vigour. They were soon shattered. Despite great bravery the first French assault was broken up by rifle, musket and artillery fire, with the French General Bauduin dying. Vicious fighting developed as the French attempted to clamber up the walls, sometimes standing on each others shoulders. Finally as the French were pushed back, Allied re-enforcements were sent in. The French had lost 1,500 men in around 30 minutes. Still, in some ways they had been successful. They had pulled some of Wellingtons reserves into Hougemont and diverted some Allied attention from the centre and left wing.
- Now comes a moment of controversy. It seems that General Reille, who was Jerome’s superior, advised him that he had done enough at Hougemont. Yet Jerome certainly didn’t stop the attacks. He intensified them. Years later Prince Jerome is supposed to have claimed to have received orders directly from Napoleon during the battle to capture Hougemont no matter what. According to Prince Jerome Napoleon said
- [QUOTE] If Grouchy does not come up or if you do not carry Hougoumont, the battle is decidedly lost – so go – go and carry Hougoumont – coûte que coûte.’ [END QUOTE]
- If that is actually true, then Jerome was bound to carry on with attacking Hougoumont. Not just attacking. If the order was as Jerome described, then he was being told that his role of capturing the farm was mission critical to winning the battle. It was perhaps phrased with the “at all costs” tag that signified casualties and difficulties were irrelevant. Of course it might be that Prince Jerome was seeking to justify making repeated futile attacks that might have killed thousands pointlessly and even ruined Napoleon’s chances of winning. Equally it is wholly possible that Napoleon did view Hougemont as just that vital. He directed other attacks at it during the day and seems to have had his eyes on it. Napoleon could spot a pivotal point easily and was known to be willing to spend troops lives carelessly if it would give him a victory. Hougemont falling into French hands would have opened Wellington’s right flank to serious fire and attacks just as he would have been struggling against attacks on his centre and left. Heavy guns could have been moved up to batter the British and allied positions.
- On Napoleons orders or not more attacks would go in. Especially between between 12:30 and 15:00. The French attacked from multiple directions, through trees and hedges. Desperately trying to get shots at hard to see Allied soldiers who were in hard cover. The French didn’t waver. Under heavy fire, a group of brave beyond reason Frenchmen charged the north gate. At their head was Lieutenant Legros of the 2nd Light Infantry, a giant of a man nicknamed “the smasher” and wielding an axe . He battered his way in with 40 men. A bitter fight began in the courtyard. The French weren’t supported by re-enforcements and the British defenders were desperately trying to get the gates closed before more French troops could arrive. The French fought frantically as the gates were closed and were finally killed to almost the last man; only a 9 year old drummer boy was spared. Wellington certainly regard this as a critical moment. If Hougoumont fell early, he would be exposed
- Whilst the troops at Hougoumont had their battle reduced to the hell of trying to climb walls under fire, or batter down gates, or for the defenders, hold off hordes of desperate enemy assaults, elsewhere the “Great men” of the day decided that they were ready to start things off for real. At 13:00 General Desalles the Commander of the French Grand Artillery, opened up a massive fire that shock the heavens in one massive similtaneous shot.
- The French had delayed starting the battle to let the ground dry out. This was to make the guns easier to move and more effective when they fired. Even so, artillery could weigh a couple of tons or more. Even on dry roads, they were hard to move. Here the French had to drag them through mud. Gunners were exhausted before the battle even started. The Allies had watched some French Gunners struggling into position since at least 11:00. Not that being in position would bring the gunners much rest. The cannon didn’t have any recoil control mechanism so when they fired, they rolled backwards and then had to be dragged back into position with ropes. Guns could require 8 man teams to position, load, aim, fire, clean, re-position, clean again, then repeat the process. There was no ear protection, so gunners became progressively deafened during their careers. Some wrapped cloth around their ears or stuffed them with cheese. The cannon were unreliable, and a miscut fuse could cause a gun to fire early. A man who didn’t keep well clear of a cannon as it fired could be crushed as 2 tons of metal were propelled backwards by the recoil. Defects in the cannon barrel could be lethal. Constant firing could cause the defect to become a disaster as barrels burst in use, killing gun crews.
- Still the guns were the key to Napoleon’s plan for the day. That his great guns would shatter key points of the Allied line. Cannon shot would kill whole ranks of men. Imagine that for a moment. Soldiers could take years to train yet be swept away in 10’s by a single cannon shot. All their hopes and dreams snuffed out. Families lost brothers, sons, uncles in seconds. But it wasn’t remarked. “Close the ranks” the sergeants would call. Stoic British soldiers would move to close the gaps. The newer allied regiments would shuffle more nervously together. This was what Napoleon’s success rested on. Being able to shake and shatter the perfectly chosen spots in an enemies lines, then batter the weak point with infantry, and then turn loose his cavalry to break the remains and ride them down.
- The Grand Battery pumped out 2,700 rounds in 30 mins at around 700 yards. This was murderous for exposed troops. Napoleon viewed his great guns as the real winners of battles, saying
- [QUOTE] “it is with artillery that one makes war.” [END QUOTE]
- I’m going to quote from 24 Hours at Waterloo by Robert Kershaw, describing the opening of the French Bombardment.
- [QUOTE] Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann, with the same battalion, was also gravely reflecting on his survival chances ‘I was confronted with the question: will you see your homeland and loved ones again, or will your restless life be cut short by an enemy’s sword?’ Soldiers often dwelled on the trauma of an anonymous death, craving reassurance that their loved ones would at least remember them. Biedermann philosophically reflected that a ‘man is always at the threshold of eternity; it is only that the world around does not always remind him of it in all its earnestness.’ He was re-acquainted with the fickle nature of his own mortality when the Grande Batterie suddenly opened fire. ‘Soon the balls from the artillery on both sides were flying over and beyond us’ There was activity both to their right at Hougoumont and to their left. For the moment their sector remained quiet except for the ‘the incessant buzz of the cannon balls which only caused broken branches to shower on our heads.’ [END QUOTE]
- Thoughts like this were common on both sides. It is probably a common feeling for most soldiers throughout history I would imagine. It isn’t possible to say with certainty. Warfare has changed over time, and also warfare is often a continuation of the culture. Did a Christian Knight reflect with fear the night before battle? Or was his world view different enough that he only saw the blessing of God if he died in battle? Did a Mongel archer even view what he did as war under Genghis Khan, or was it just another form of hunting from the saddle, no different form hunting a dangerous beast? Was it the lack of autonomy that created particular fear for Napoleonic troops? Having to stand motionless in ranks as cannons blasted your friends to either side away and you couldn’t take cover unless given orders.
- Worse, unlike modern artillery or the shells that cannons could fire, which were invisible, men could see the slow moving cannon balls lazily flying through the air towards them. They looked slow and clumsy the more distance they covered, heavy balls of metal slowly bouncing a few times across the ground. This might no sound too bad, but they were still fast moving hunks of heavy metal. If they touched a man they would tear off limbs, heads, break bones and rupture organs. Even spent ones could lop off a foot with terrifying ease. Raw recruits had to be sternly warned not to put a foot out to stop a ball that was lazily coming towards them like a slow moving bowling ball as it would easily take off the lower half of the legs. Men and horses would be chopped in half by these cannon balls, arms or legs disappeared, and a hit to the torso was invariably fatal. These bowling balls of death would carry on to finish men behind as well. They didn’t even have to hit. The immense force and change in air pressure could fatally change the pressure of body fluids in a person as it passed, causing heads to explode without even touching the victim. Some soldiers remembered being a mass of bruises and turning almost black from cannon balls coming close but missing.
- If you are still struggling to visualise the damage a cannon ball can do, remember those pirate films you watched, where the ships fire broadsides at each other, smashing great chunks of timber away. Those were the larger versions of the battle field cannons. Frankly, if the descriptions of cannon fire from the grand battery at Waterloo sound awful, spare a thought for those poor sailors at Trafalgar where the ships guns would fire the equivalent in a few broadsides.
- Survivors of Waterloo left vivid accounts of the opening fire of the Grand Battery.
- Sergeant William Lawrence of the 40th Foot described a direct hit
- [QUOTE] A shell from the enemy cut our deputy Sergeant-Major in two, and having passed on to take the head off one of my company of grenadiers named William Hooper, exploded in the rear more than one yard from me, hurling me at least two yards into the air. [END QUOTE]
- He was left with the skin on the left side of his face scorched off, his sash burnt and his sword handle blacked.
- A few things strike me about that quote. First is you can see that cannon balls and shells really would cut things in half and keep going. Second is that survival was just a matter of luck. Sergeant Lawrence was only missed by a yard. Third though is that Sergeant Lawrence knows one of the dead soldiers. These weren’t just people in red coats, dying namelessly in the background to him. They weren’t like they are for us, unidentified figures in the background of history. These were his fellow soldiers, his brothers in arms. We can’t know what the Sergeants relationship was with Pvt Hooper. Was it just that he knew the face and name? Or had they shared a bottle and a laugh on guard duty? Had the Sergeant taught Pvt Hooper the ins and outs of campaign life when he joined the regiment?
- I’m emphasising this so that it brings home that any battle we talk about on the podcast is a human affair. Fought by humans, for humans reasons. We can’t just zoom out and say “ah the blue ranks of the French moved in mass columns as Napoleon directed them against the neat red ranks of the British line” We have to go deeper than that to move beyond the superficial presentation we get in art or computer games.
- It was too much for some men. Sergeant Lawrence was greatly annoyed at a new recruit to the 40th Foot. A Private Bartram, who was in his first battle. He couldn’t take the artillery fire and begged to be allowed to fall out as he was ill. The Sergeant wasn’t going to allow that, and shoved Bartram back into line. Bartram then fell to the ground and refused to move. Lawrence latter recalled that
- [QUOTE] He ought to have been shot [END QUOTE]
- That sounds harsh, but the Sergeants job was to keep the men fighting under fire. He was there risking his life with them, and he was seeing his friends and comrades die. He probably had little sympathy for those who didn’t do what he felt was needed.
- Sergeant Lawrence wasn’t the only person under artillery fire. Ensign Wheatley who was stationed with the Kings German Legion, described the effects too.
- [QUOTE] The first man who fell was five files on my left. With the utmost distortion of feature he lay on his side shrivelling up every muscle of his body, he twirled his elbow round and round in acute agony, then dropped lifeless. [END QUOTE]
- Sergeant Tuittmeyer of the Kings German Legion had his arm removed at the shoulder by a round. Only a tiny stump of bone was left. This was a horrific injury, but his men pushed him up on a horse and he had to ride off to Brussels miles away to try to get medical help. He was certainly alive a month later, but after that it is unclear. Did he succumb to his wounds, or infection? Or did he return home to be supported by family, or was he left to starve and die of unemployment and drink like many unwanted soldiers after the war was over? It didn’t matter to the chroniclers of history, but it mattered to him and those who knew him perhaps? I think that means it should matter to the podcast.
- Albrecht Heifer also in the Kings German Legion was hit in the chest by fire. He had suffered a glancing blow from a cannonball. He lost the skin and muscle down to the bone. It was miraculous that he survived. Few soldiers survived a direct hit to the torso. Captain Adair 1st Guards, who were stationed near Sergeant Lawrence, was hit in the hip. It shatter his hip bone and ripped all the flesh and muscle from his thigh. This was fatal.
- Invisible shells mixed with the more easily spotted cannon balls hammered the Allied army up and down the line. Men took cover in the mud if they could. This was not glorious, it was dirty and unpleasant. Fine uniforms became mud covered, and men under fire couldn’t move to drink water or relieve themselves. They had to piss themselves in the mud rather than risk exposure. Still it was better for those that could take cover to do so.
- Don’t forget that this is the opening music to raise the curtain for the opera. Napoleon has teased Wellington at Hougoument and treated him a powerful opening salvo to show him what is coming. Other armies facing Napoleon have been shaken and wavering at this stage from the early diversionary attacks and the heavy cannon fire. Nicely softened for the main assault, they would be easy to break. Often Napoleon wouldn’t even have to use his Imperial Guard reserves. He guarded them preciously. His “Grumblers” as he called them. Today would be different. Despite the noise and fury of the grand battery, most of the allied army was carefully hidden behind the reserve slope of Wellingtons ridge. Officers familiar with Wellingtons tactics in Spain would order their men to lie down to give them further protection from fire. For all its sound and fury, the fire from the grand battery wasn’t as effective as Napoleon would have believed. Worse for him, the ground was still muddy, so cannon balls would often stick in the mud rather than bouncing round killing. The angle of shot meant some French guns fired only to see their shots bounce up off the top of the Allied ridge and sail harmlessly over the enemies heads. Allied troops were dying, but not enough of them and not quickly enough.
- For reasons I’ve understood, but not fully agreed with, during his career Napoleon had thrown away an immense technological advantage. France had a hot air ballon corp at one stage. The balloons were heavy, hard to move, weather dependent and slow to inflate so Napoleon had no patience for them. But imagine at Waterloo if they had been present. They could have been inflated overnight and done an aerial reconnaissance of the Allied position. Imagine the advantage this would have given Napoleon. Accurate information about the hidden Allied deployment. Now take it a step further. The French had the technology to use mortars, not just cannon. A mortar is basically a short barrelled cannon that can fire up over walls instead of a straight line. The British used them in the defence of Hougoumont. They were common in siege warfare too. Again though, Napoleon’s focus on speed meant he was unimpressed with the slow moving mortars and didn’t bring many to Waterloo.
- How history might have changed if he had balloons and mortars available is an interesting question. The balloons were very unreliable and weather dependent, but the weather during the day of Waterloo was ideal for them. The balloons could have dropped notes to the ground to help direct mortar fire. Primative and slow, but given the extremely small size of the battlefield, the limited view needed, and the slow reaction times, this might have worked.
- Still, idol speculation aside, the fact was that the French opening fire hadn’t been very effective, and Hougoumont was turning into a bloody meat grinder for the French. Napoleon was deferring most battlefield control to Marshal Ney. This was fairly standard practice for Napoleon especially as the battles grew larger. Napoleon would set the overall approach, moves, and goals for the battle, then he would leave the precise implementation to his Marshals. It was highly empowering in some ways, meaning that the men on the spot got to take the decisions, but it required highly performing Marshals and experienced, motivated, disciplined troops.
- Marshal Ney was planning to send D’Erlon and his fresh troops in as the main assault on the British & Dutch section of the line to the right of the main road from the French point of view and was to the right of La Hay Sainte. This was therefore against the British left of centre. It required crossing the valley and ascending the light ridge, crossing it and shattering the British regiments. Now this was a tricky prospect. An uphill assault is never ideal in warfare. Men get tired, it is harder to hit shooting uphill than down. If you can’t see all the enemies at the top, it is especially risky. Marshal Ney had suffered defeats against Wellington in Spain in just this situation. It would require particular care and it needed the fiery, leading from the front Marshal to hang back and carefully control his generals and men, bringing infantry, cavalry and close artillery support together with clockwork precision but retaining the flexibility to adapt and overcome the enemies response. At the same time, Marshal Ney had to keep an eye on Hougoumont, and manage his reserves carefully to prevent counterattacks or exploit any opportunities. It would have been asking a lot of any commander, and even at his very best this would have been a tall ask for Marshal Ney. Of course if you’ve listened to my previous episode about Quatre Bras, you will know that not only was this basically well out of Marshal Ney’s character and abilities even at his best, but that he was almost certainly psychologically damaged by now. Perhaps suffering PTSD, certainly erratic and perhaps with a death wish. This was absolutely not a man to give an intricate and difficult battlefield command. Marshal Devout was in Paris as Minister of War. He certainly would have been the right man for this job, but it was too late. Ney had command of the field and Ney it would have to be.
- And it wasn’t as if the French generals hadn’t been planning for this. They had experience of the devastating fire of the British. It is interesting to note that it was the British that were the main consideration. Other nationalities besides the British didn’t really feature in their worries. They knew it was the British regiments that provided the solid foundation of the Allied army, and if those could be broken, the rest would crumple quickly.
- In many ways things were going well for Napoleon. The weather and late start had done him no favours. The assault on Hougoumont was nicely occupying Wellington, and despite not being at its most effective, the artillery fire was ferocious and causing immense damage. With care and good management an assault against Wellington’s left would break him. Wellington had deployed the bulk of his forces on the other side of the Brussels road. On his centre and right. Napoleon probably felt that he had yet again wrong footed Wellington. In a way this was correct, but as always the difficulty was in the execution rather than the idea.
- D’Erlon had also thought carefully about this attack. His men had missed the battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny so crucially they were fresh and eager to get into battle. General Drout d’ergon was committed, calling out to his men “Today it is necessary to vanquish or die.” The troops roar “Vive l’Empereur” British and Hanoverian officers and men watched in awe as the mass of French infantry began to move forward, whilst the cannonade intensified. Captain John Kincaid 1/95th near La Hay Sainte recalled
- [QUOTE] Countless columns began to advance under the cover of it. The scene at that moment was very grand and imposing, and we had a few minutes to spare for observation. A smaller body of infantry and one of cavalry moved on their right and on their left, another column of infantry and a formidable body of cuirassiers. [END QUOTE]
- Other officers recalled seeing 16 eagles and 33 battalions. Masses of French forming up in columns, white cross belts gleaming in the sun, tall shakos crowned with shining badges.
- In all General D’Erlon was about to advance in a narrow area of 1000 yards wide with 17,00 supported by 800 cavalry just to the West of the Brussels road. That’s the Allied left wing from Wellingtons point of view – his slightly weaker side. All seemed in the French favour. Here was the great attack of the day. An irresistible mass of fresh, almost fanatical troops directed by the fighting Marshal Ney. Yet even as the French began, the next great setback of the day was about to occur. At 13:35 Napoleon was surveying the ridge with his telescope one last time before it was obscured by smoke during the battle. He spotted something in the tree line to the far left of the Allied line from Wellingtons point of view. Could it be mist and trees, or a dark cloud? Or men moving? Staff officers hurried trained their telescopes on the spot. Some swore it was trees in the mist, but some said they were troops. But if they were troops, whose? Was it the Prussians or was it Grouchy. Whoever they were, they were only five miles away. Napoleon dispatched 3,000 of his precious cavalry to investigate. If it was Grouchy, then the cavalry would link up with this, and Wellington would probably face utter catastrophe.
- 15 minutes later, the cavalry sent a captured Prussian Black Hussar to the Emperor, who confirmed that Bulow’s IV corp of 30,000 men was arriving. Like D’Erlon these troops were fresh. IF you listened to earlier episodes you will know that they had been subject to muddled orders and were late to learn that the war had started, so they missed the thrashing at Ligny. This must have been grim news for Napoleon. They would change the odds. Stilll, the situation was not a disaster. If Grouchy arrived hot on the heels in pursuit of the Prussians as he’d been odered, well then Napoleon would not only have Wellington in the net, but a whole isolated Prussian corp too. If this happened, well then he’d have knocked his two enemies out of the war in a day.
- Oddly enough, the Prussians were suffering a fit of reluctance. That came from one man. General Gneisenau. He was regarded as the brains of the Prussian army, and was openly referred to as such by Blucher. Unlike Blucher, he wasn’t very good on the battlefield. He also mistrusted Wellington and the British. He was hesitant to cross the Lasne defile and join the battle. He deliberately held up the order of march to slow the Prussians down. It took Blucher to over come his concerns and push the Prussians to march to aid Wellington. Still, that would take time to organise and would require co-ordination with Wellington. Napoleon didn’t delay though, he knew what the arrival of the Prussians meant. Wellington had to beaten, quickly before the Prussians could tip the scale. He had launched D’Erlon in attack. He sent two cavalry divisions and two infantry divisions of 8,000 badly needed men under General Lobau as well as 32 guns to hold up the Prussians. With these gone, Hougoumont sucking in more and more men, and now D’Erlon committed to the main attack Napoleon was stretched thin. He still had the magnificent Imperial Guard and the cavalry reserve, but there was nothing else available to him. D’Erlon must break Wellington. The reserves were there only to guarantee a victory by exploiting a win or to stave off absolute defeat by covering a retreat.
- By 14:00 the Prussians had begun to cross the Lasne gap with Bulow’s IV corp in the lead, but it was in marching order. Long thin lines of men to thread their way through narrow forest roads. They would take hours to get to Wellington. Von Zeithens I Corp was even further away. For now Wellington and the Allies would fight alone. This was the crucial period for Napoleon. Did Napoleon silently kick himself for not starting the battle at day break. Imagine if the main attack had started at 09:30 instead of 13:30. Imagine that Ney hadn’t delayed at Quatre Bras. Imagine that Napoleon hadn’t delayed after Ligny. It is interesting to note that some of Wellington’s men Lambts Brigade had arrived by ship from America, unloaded from the ships, force marched to Waterloo and arrived at the battlefield at 10:30. If Napoleon had started at 09:30 Wellington would have been short a brigade and the Prussians would have been basically a whole day away from being able to help. Although this would have meant that the gallant Sergeant Lawrence would have missed the battle as his regiment was part of Lambts Brigade. I don’t know if the sergeant fought the Americans in the war of 1812, but the 4tth Battalion had and had lost a lot of its officers at the battle of New Orleans.
- Why am I telling you that? Well apart from it being mostly relevant, have a think about what it means. British troops could be deployed anywhere in the world. The government thought nothing of redeploying a regiment from combat theatre to combat theatre as needed. Some of these regiments would become fearsome veterans. More than that though, it meant that soldiers who survived major battles like Waterloo would shape the spirit of their regiment for years to come. Regiments carried the memory of these actions into future wars. Some of the troops who fought in the brutal action of Waterloo would be sent to fight in colonies of the British Empire, on the Frontiers or in more major actions. They would have been tough men, who came from a life of poverty, where death and violence were commonplace. Then then join the army, only to be forged to a new hardness by Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo. They took these attitudes, experiences and life views with them around the world as they started the major period of British expansion. They and their officers would train and mould new recruits to the army. In times of major crisis some officers would remind troops that the regiment had fought at Waterloo. In the same way that WW2 or 9/11 shaped generations, well Waterloo was shaping the British army and giving it almost a creation myth.
- Time lost can’t even be regained. Especially in war, time is the most precious resource available. All rested on General D’Erlon and Marshal Ney. They had to succeed and do it quickly. Unfortunately, the problems began for D’Erlon and his men almost immediately. They marched through the French guns and down the slopes. Drums pounded and cheers went up, but they were soon in the mud of the valley bottom. Men couldn’t march, just struggle through the mud as best they could. Some men had their shoes sucked off in the deep mud. The fire of the Grand Battery roared overhead, but it had to stop as the French climbed the slope.
- Dubois and his cavalry went up the Brussels road towards La Hay Sainte and moved off round to the left of the road making for the centre. General Quiot was close by with two Brigades, in a more open formation than the dense battalion columns used by Generals Donzelot and Marcognet. He was supposed to attack La Hay Sainte and the cross roads, supported by Dubois and his heavy cavalry. Then to his right were Donzelot and Marcognet with the massed formations. General Durette and his division were to protect the right side of the attack and perhaps link with Grouchy if he arrived.
- The men on both sides knew that this was about to be the moment where they really earned their pay as soldiers. Either the French attack would succeed, in which case it was likely the French cavalry would sweep in to butcher thousands, or the Allies would kill enough French to stop the attack and beat it off.
- We have vivid descriptions of the attack from both sides. British guns ranked the approaching French with vicious fire. Gun fire and dum beats and shouted orders and cheers filled the air. Smoke hung across area’s and mouths went dry from fear and the constant biting off of gunpower charges. It was hellish confusion. Up till now, apart from the fight at Hougoumont, much of the battlefield had been relatively peaceful. There had even been some civilians wandering around chatting and sight seeing.
- Now though the French were closing. A French account gives us a powerful feeling of what it was like.
- [QUOTE] We were met by a hail of balls from above the road at the left. Two batteries now swept our ranks, and shot from hedges distant distant pierced us through and through. [END QUOTE]
- That’s interesting to note there. Some of the British position was hidden by a hedge in front of the concealed sunken lane. The French didn’t know about the lane, and it was a serious obstacle for them. The British had taken the opportunity to carefully hide cannon in the hedge to add to the impressive firestorm that the French had to face. The British 95th Rifles added to the French pain by pouring in accurate, long range rifle fire from their position in a sand pit near La Hay Sainte.
- The French pressed on hard. The noise must have reached a horrific pitch. This is not something we can understand just from the static and highly stylised artwork and prints of the period.
- Now though the pressure on the Allied line also intensified. The French were forcing the top of the ridge, pushing through hedges. The British gunners acted on Wellington’s standing orders to leave their guns and take shelter from a main assault, to return to their guns later if the attack was beaten off. This lessened the Allied fire considerably. Bijlandt’s 7 Infantry Battalion from the Netherlands began to waver. They began to break. The French were seriously hampered by the sunken lane. This was more like a ravine according to some eye witnesses, and forced the French to slow down and struggle across. As the Netherlanders broke and ran, it looked like the French had done it. They were on the cusp of breaking the Allied centre, splitting Wellington’s army in half and smashing it. The French were showing why they were considered one of the toughest, bravest fighting powers in the C19th. Still French formations were disordered and confused by the hedge, and the sheer number of men crammed into a small area. Smoke hung heavily over everyone. The French just needed time to carry the assault and reform then push on to victory. They were only yards and minutes away from victory.
- There were still some British units left to try to check the French attack. This might be one of the numerically weakest parts of Wellingtons line, but it was held by some very dangerous men. Sir Thomas Picton was the well known commander, experienced and tough. In his younger days in the Caribbean he had tortured slaves to an extent that he was actually put on trial. He secured a dubious acquittal on appeal on the grounds that Spanish colonial law allowed the torture. Despite this Francisco De Miranda had recommended him to Wellington and he had distinguished himself in Spain. He was still in his civilian clothes, but he was committed. He had two brigades to use, and he sent them forward. One, commanded by General Pack was made of fearsome Highlanders. 1st, 42nd and 92nd. It is never nice to be on the receiving end of an attack by the Highlanders, and at Waterloo they would give the French a lesson. They were the tough men of the glens and the rough towns and cities of Scotland. They were fiercely proud and ready. They might be only 1800 against 8000 but they would fight. They moved forward the 50 yards to fill the gap left by the fleeing Netherlanders and poured three brutal volleys into the French. Then they stood to hold the line.
- At the critical point of La Hay Sainte, the fighting was brutal and intense. The Germans holding the position wanted revenge on the French after years of war. La Hay Sainte was not well fortified, and fighting raged fiercely. British General Alten spotted the danger of losing La Hay Sainte. He sent more German troops to steady the situation. They set off across the open ground to re-enforce their belligered comrades. Unfortunately, the ground was gently rolling in the area, and the French cavalry under General Dubois was hidden in a fold. A disaster was about to unfold for the Germans. The German re-enforcements were marching in column as fast as they could, but they were spotted by the French cavalry. The high discipline of the French was about to pay off. The ground was too wait for a full on charge, but they could manage a fast well ordered trot against the exposed Germans. It was too late to form square. Imagine the horror the Germans must have felt. To know you are doomed, and not be able to do anything, but still having to wait for death to hit home. Hit home it did though. The Lundberg Battalion was effective wiped out. Three officers were killed, the standard capture, half the men were killed, another 180 more were left missing in action.
- Then the cavalry pushed on past La Hay Sainte, towards the British centre. They even captured two British guns.
- Now the battle hung in the balance. What could turn the tide for the Allies?
So began the morning of Waterloo. After the night of brutal weather, one of the greatest battles of Europe history was about to be fought. It was also to be one of the last of its kind. Never again would Europe see the massed ranks of finely dressed, superbly drilled troops fighting in a tiny field of battle, barely 6 square miles. Until the outbreak of the Franco Prussian war, the continent would be free of large scale conflict, and when it did burst into war the battles were on a vast scale that would be a precursor to the type seen in world war one.
The men probably were wondering if they had been wise to sign up. The life of a 19th century civilian could be brutal and the army at least offered regularish meals. Still those who had enlisted for a meal might be about to pay a high price. Imagine the desperation you had to feel to have joined to march into the cannon’s mouth. To be forced to stand in line motionless until commanded to move or act. Men being blasted to pieces around you by cannon shot. Black smoke burning your eyes, and drying your mouth like sand. At any moment enemy infantry could emerge from the smoke, or worse the cavalry could catch you by surprise. Riding you down or splitting your skull before you could form square. But these were the risks of the day. Hunger was a powerful motive, well captured in a ballard written by Joseph Lees in 1805, called Jone o Grinfilt
The ballard was originally in the Oldham dialect but I’m going to read out the modern English standard version.
Says John to his wife on a hot summer’s day,
“I’ve resolved in Greenfield no longer to stay;
For I’ll go to Oldham as fast as I can,
So farewell Greenfield, and farewell to Nan;
For a soldier I’ll be, and brave Oldham I’ll see,
And I’ll have a battle with the French.”
“Dear John,” then said Nan, and she bitterly cried,
“Will you be one of the Foot, or you means for to ride?”
“Zounds! woman I’ll ride either an ass or a mule,
Before I’ll cower in Greenfield as black as th’ old devil
Both hungry and starving, and never a farthing,
It would really drive any man mad.”
“Yes, John, since we came to Greenfield to dwell,
We’ve had many poor meals, I can very well tell.”
“Poor meal, begad! Yes, that I very well know,
There’s been two days this week we’ve had nothing at all;
I’m almost decided, before I’ll put up with it,
I’ll fight either Spanish or French.”
Then says my Aunt Margaret, “Ah! John, you’re so rash,
I’d never go to Oldham, but in England I’d stop.”
“It matters not, Madge, for to Oldham I’ll go,
I’m nearly starved to death, somebody shall know:
First Frenchman I find, I’ll tell him my mind,
And if he’ll not fight, he shall run.”
Then down the brow I came, for we lived at the top,
I thought I’d reach Oldham before I would stop;
Begad! How they stared when I got to the Mumps,
My old hat in my hand, and my clogs full of stamps;
But I soon told them, I’m going to Oldham
And I’d have a battle with the French.
I kept straight on through the lane, and to Oldham I went,
I asked a recruit if they’d made up their count?
“Now, now, honest lad” (for he talked like a king),
“Go with me through the street, and to you I will bring
Where, if you’re willing, you may have a shilling.”
Begad! I thought this was remarkable news.
He brought me to the place, where they measure their height,
And if they are the height they are nothing about weight;
I reached myself and stretched, and never did flinch:
Says the man, “I believe you’re my lad to an inch.”
I thought this will do; I shall have guineas enough.
Begad! Oldham, brave Oldham for me.
So farewell, Greenfield, a soldier I’m made:
I’ve got new shoes, and a very nice cockade;
I’ll fight for Old England as hard as I can,
Either French, Dutch, or Spanish, to me it’s all one;
I’ll make them stare, like a new started hare,
And I’ll tell them from Oldham I’ve come.
Not that the Emperor was passing a cold wet night, followed by a scramble for food like most combatants on either side. He spent the night in a comfortable farm house called La Caillou, 3 km south of the battlefield. Whether he himself was comfortable is debatable. Some historians have stated that the Emperor was in agony from serious piles. Napoleons brother Jerome states that Napoleon was suffering from acute piles and was in considerable pain. We know from the famous French Physician, Dr Larrey that Napoleon had to be treated for piles using hot clothes just after the Battle of Ligny. However his night passed, he rose early around 04:30 and began issuing orders.La Cillou is still there and if you have a chance to visit you can see Napoleons camp bed and some other bits and pieces of interest.
At 08:00 he had breakfast and a conference with his generals. His beloved personal crockery had turned up. After breakfast, the table was cleared and maps spread out. These maps would have been difficult to read for a modern person. They were small, drawn in inks or pencils and without the clear colour coding we are used to from modern ordnance survey maps. Often they were ad hoc and prone to significant errors. Whilst contour lines technically existed, they weren’t used in the same way as today. Wellington’s map is good, but very hard to read. The French original is terrible. Indeed it has been recently claimed to be error filled and caused much confusion.
I’m going to quote from a Telegraph article about a French documentary on the topic
[QUOTE]Napoleon was relying on a false map for his strategy in his last battle, said Franck Ferrand, the maker of a documentary broadcast on French television. This explains why he mistook the lie of the land and was disoriented on the battlefield. It is certainly one of the factors that led to his defeat. The strategic farm of Mont-Saint-Jean was shown a kilometre from its real location. One kilometre was the range of his cannons so you can see what a difference it must have made, he added.
The false map, used by one of his officers and identical to Napoleons own, was discovered by Bernard Coppens, a Belgian illustrator and historian, still stained with blood, at a Brussels military museum.
We compared the printed map used on the battlefield with the original handdrawn one it was copied from,Mr Ferrand said. We realised it was a printing error. Not only was the farm in the wrong place, but the map showed a bend in the road that did not exist. He added: We also found a letter from his younger brother, Jerome Bonaparte, which described him as looking completely lost on the battlefield of Waterloo. [END QUOTE]
Pre-battle talks have to be moral boosting. No matter how grim the situation, the supreme commander cannot convey defeatism without courting disaster. In his book Vienna 1814, David King gave the following account of the post breakfast discussion
[QUOTE] We have ninety chances in our favour, and not ten against us, Napoleon said, calculating the odds of success that day. Marshal Ney, however, was troubled, fearing that Wellington would sneak away in a retreat and the French would miss the opportunity for a decisive victory. Napoleon rejected the possibility outright. Britain could no longer leave the scene, he said. Wellington has rolled the dice, and they are in our favor. Marshal Soult, the recently appointed chief of staff, was also concerned, though for a different reason. Soult had fought Wellington in Spain several times, without success “the British infantry was the devil himself”, as he had once put it. Perhaps Napoleon should recall Marshall Grouchy and the thirty-three thousand men whom he had dispatched the previous day to pursue the Prussians. Napoleon bluntly dismissed the suggestion: Because you have been beaten by Wellington, you consider him a great general.â€ â€œWellington is a bad general, Napoleon continued, the English are bad troops, and this will be like eating breakfast. I earnestly hope so, Soult replied. [END QUOTE]
There was of course the usual mass grumbling of men marching into position. Gunners set up their pieces, and muskets had been cleared and loaded. Surgeons laid out tools ready to take care of the injured. Still his generals at breakfast were downright gloomy. Napoleon didn’t normally like to eat breakfast with others, he was noted as a somewhat indifferent eater with poor manners and bad taste in wine. Probably he felt that he needed his commanders together and to plan. The breakfast has become justly famous, which you can’t often say about a breakfast as a rule.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance for military commanders of keeping a positive mindset. Of course this shouldn’t blind a commander to reality, but it is worryingly easy for a commander to talk himself and his army into defeat. Also Napoleon actually had fairly good reason not to highly rate Wellington so far; the Duke had already been caught flat footed by the invasion, then made dangerous mistakes in his response to the attacks at Quatre Bras. Balanced against that, the French Marshals had been repeatedly beaten by Wellington in Spain. They were convinced a frontal attack against British infantry was hopeless, and only flanking moves would work. General Reille said [QUOTE] I consider the English infantry to be impregnable [END QUOTE] and went on to say flanking attacks were required to beat them. This was not the answer Napoleon was looking for as he was planning direct frontal assaults for the day. It appeared clear to him that the weather and mud would stop quick movement. He also dismissed suggestions that he summon Marshal Grouchy back with his men. Fatally though, he accepted suggestions to delay the start of the battle to allow the ground to dry out more for the artillery.
Napoleon’s orderly Jardin gave the following account
[QUOTE] On the 18th Napoleon having left the bivouac, that is to say the village Caillou on horseback, at half-past nine in the morning came to take up his stand half a league in advance upon a hill where he could discern the movements of the British army.
There he dismounted, and with his field glass endeavoured to discover all the movements in the enemy’s line. The chief of the staff suggested that they should begin the attack; he replied that they must wait, but the enemy commenced his attack at eleven o’clock and the cannonading began on all sides [END QUOTE]
Now, the Emperor was ready. Now was the time to start in earnest. The displays, the careful moves, the clever plans. The time for that was past. Napoleon had to beat the Allied army. I am repeating the word allied here, not British army. That is seriously important. We must get past the historical airbrushing. Wellington’s army was an international mix from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Hanover, the Netherlands, the Indies, Brunswick and Nassau. It was a truly international force. Only 36% of it was actually British. Even that 36% was neither entirely English or entirely white.
I want to tell you about Pvt George Rose. He was born as a slave in Jamaica but escaped in 1809. He somehow made it to London. He joined the 73rd Foot. He served in Ireland where he became a Methodist, then later in German and the Netherlands in 1813-1814. He was known to have been in the thick of combat at Quatre Bras, but today would be a new level of hell for the former slave turned soldier – all of his hopes and ambitions rested on surviving the day without being maimed or otherwise incapacited from service.
Prt Rose certainly wasn’t the only black soldier fight for the allies. What I find really fascinating though is that it wasn’t the black soldiers that were the target of the disdain of most English & Scottish soldiers. The real vitriol seemed aimed at the Irish, who had a very complex relationship with the Scottish and English. As you will see in later episodes there was immense social tension involving the Irish and they were accused of stealing English jobs during the Victorian period. My speculation is that black soldiers were not common, and were often driven to prove themselves as being as good or better than their white comrades. That probably made the relationship easier, and since they weren’t in direct competition with the English for large scale employment, they were viewed more as a novelty than a threat. This isn’t to say that racism didn’t exist, just that it was a good deal more complicated than might be assumed. By being posted to elite regiments to serve as trumpeters they gained respect, yet at the same time were victims of racism since the fashion for black musicians was linked to aristocrats displaying their wealth by having servants and this filtered through to the more elite Guards regiments. Still service in the West Indies and India accustomed a lot of British white regiments to non-white soldiers and civilians, creating a more open racial relationship in the early part of the C19th than would be seen in the mid to late c19th. It was of course still racist, and promotion was exceptionally hard for black soldiers, who encountered serious prejudice being regarded as less disciplined and morally inferior. I’m just mentioning this, because I’ve yet to see any real art work that shows black troops at Waterloo, despite their contribution. There is a piece of art called “The Recruiting Officer” which shows a black soldier as a trumpeter in a recruiting party. Most people who are only vaguely familiar with Waterloo seem to think of it as a triumph of white English soldiers helped by some Scots, beating the French. As you’ve already seen in reality things were much more complicated.
Wellington displayed little trust in his foreign allies. He broke them up in the main, scattering them around the army by including foreign brigades into British Division, thereby mixing British officers in with the foreign formations. This caused a lot of resentment. Many senior officers felt slighted, and it was hard for foreign troops to accept strange British officers appearing to take over. Some worried that the British were using them as cannon fodder. Wellingtons near open disdain for some of his allies didn’t help. He was scathing about his allied contingents. Early in the battle a few hundred Nassu troops from their skirmish companies were desperately holding the woods around Hougoumont against odds of 10:1. They were driven off after an hour of heavy fighting, and retired to the main farm buildings under intense pressure, having inflicted heavy casualties on the French. Wellington was annoyed and remarked to a Russian attache [QUOTE] it is with these scoundrels that a battle must be won [END QUOTE]
Now to be fair to Wellington, a lot of the nations under his command were either newly created, had patchy military records or in the Belgium case had recently fought for Napoleon. Some Belgiums uniforms were Napoleonic but with the cap badges changed. Still Wellington had extensive experience operating in coalition armies. Even if his British officers or troops displayed their usual sense of superiority (justified or not), Wellington knew that success depend on the Prussians. Wellington was only willing to fight at Waterloo because he was convinced that at least one Prussian corp would reach him to help.
Indeed Wellington had not been idle. He had been up since at least 03:00 hours writing orders and letters. At 06:00 he began the serious work of the day.
[QUOTE] About six O’clock that chilly and damp morning, the duke put on his blue coat, his blue cloak, and his boots, high up on the leg. With his hat in hand, which he typically wore front-back as opposed to Napoleon, who wore it side to side, Wellington walked over to his small charger, the chestnut Copenhagen, stepped into the iron stirrup, and vaulted into the stiff hussar saddle with the high pommel in front. He rode off to be everywhere at once. [END QUOTE]
Wellington, much like Napoleon was physically extremely brave and would routinely be under fire during battles.
Yet curiously, no one is actually quite sure when exactly the battle of Waterloo began. Wellington said 10:00, others 11:30, Marshal Ney thought 13:30.
We do need to discuss time and time keeping. I’ve given you the precise time of sunrise as that can be verified by astronomy. You can work out times for sunrise and sunsets, lunar phases and eclipses over centuries. Other times in this battle will be given precisely where a source mentions them, but that is misleading. Time was not standardised in 1815. Local times varied widely. The reason Navy chronometers were set to Greenwich Mean Time as a standard was to make sure that ship navigators keep their time from a standard point so they could work out a ships longitude. The armies at Waterloo would have recorded time differently. Watch quality varied, and time pieces became damaged during the campaign. Watches were usually set by solar time at noon and had to be kept carefully wound. A British captain might swear blind that a French cavalry regiment charged him at 14:00 as part of a large charge, but his watch might be badly off, and he might be mistaking a small action for part of a wide movement that wasn’t happening.
Battles are not like computer games, with set turns where a unit moves then another unit, then the player turn ends and the computer takes a turn. Battles have an ebb and flow to them. More like a game of football that moves with teams generally attacking or defending depending on whether they have possession, but with individuals in the team moving forward or backwards against the flow. Even in the most vicious battles, there were moments of slack as men paused to reload, reform, spit, piss, look for bits of kit, swallow some spirits or wait for orders.
Piecing together a coherent timeline of Waterloo means relying on the mass of letters, memories, diaries, accounts, official dispatches, reports and interviews. Added on top of this are layers and layers of later books, articles, studies and research. This leads to a narrative. What narrative is told, and what lessons are drawn from it, is often down to the perceptions and biases of the individual historian. We can known some facts as definitive, others are more of a speculation or reasonable conclusion. For example, we know there were a series of great massed cavalry charges against British position. We can be confident that Marshal Ney ordered it. We can be confident that Napoleon carried on with it once it had been launched. We can reasonably conclude that Napoleon carried on because he felt once it was launched, then it had to carry on. We can know that it had limited artillery support. We can speculate that if it had been supported by horse artillery and had spiked British guns, then Napoleon would have broken the British position. We can then construct a narrative like this
Ney foolishly ordered a mass cavalry charge against the British, either in the mistaken belief that they were retreating, or that they were so shaken that the massed heavy cavalry would break them. As Marshal Ney was somewhat aggressive, and not a good planner, he failed to bring up artillery to give close support to break any resistance. Had he done that he would have broken the British squares. His men had also missed the opportunity to spike the British guns. His lack of clear thinking, and failure to exercise close control, resulted in the slaughter of the elite French cavalry. This was an inexcusable blunder. Not only was the charge the wrong decision, and he allowed it to carry on too long, but in wasting the cavalry he exposed the entire French army to disaster as without cavalry the French army was horrifically vulnerable when moving and had nothing to cover their retreat.
I’ll be honest and say that is a fairly conventional narrative. It seems plausible on the evidence, and the assessment of many professional military observers and commentators.
Still there is a completely different historical narrative that can be constructed
Marshal Ney had commanded a number of assaults against the British during the afternoon. The action at La Haye Sainte had been vicious and Hougemont had turned into a meat grinder. The battle was heavy with smoke, and the great guns of the grand battery had been pounding the British for hours. They had already mauled the British yesterday at Quatre Bras. There was only a thin line of infantry left, and they had barely repulsed the great French assault by General D’Erlon. Certainly D’Erlons men had been shattered by the British cavalry, but up to that point, the British and Dutch were crumbling. The British cavalry was in tatters and now there was movement. Some British gunners appeared to be retiring. The British must be on the last gasp. Only the British line regiments held the allied regiments in place. After Quatre Bras, Hougemont, D’Erlon’s massed attack, the loss of their heavy cavalry, now must be the time as they wavered to push them over the edge. No army could take the pounding they had. Now was the time for the heavy cavalry. They just had to get over the crest of the hill, and onto the Brussels road and then it was over. He was on horse back with only telescopes, messengers and his own eyes to gather information. Who knows what Ney thought, but perhaps the memory of Marshal Murat’s grand charges, always launched with exquisite timing came into his mind. Surely Murat would have charged? Now perhaps was his moment too. Marshal Ney had always lead from the front, always pushed the assault. Just scatter the British gunners, and run down the unsteady enemy. Then even the most disciplined troops would break as they saw their friends run.”
This second narrative is also plausible and might well be what Ney actually did think and experience. In hindsight, the massed cavalry charge without infantry or artillery support was the wrong decision, but perhaps Ney really did make a reasonable decision on the information he had.
Waterloo is very much made up of these narratives; some helpful, some pedestrian, some misleading. No one can ever truly know what Napoleon, Wellington or Ney was really thinking and understanding; all we can do is draw reasonable inferences based on what we know of what they did and the circumstances they were in, trying hard to filter it through their personalities. Just rememberer this as we cover the battle in detail.
Whatever their background, and whatever their alligance, the time had come. One of the great battles of European history was about to be fought. It would change the politics and shape the nations of the continent for nearly the next century. It is worth setting aside those pop culture images of Waterloo. That it was neat lines, puffs of smoke, and splendid epic warfare. It was a truly vicious battle that resulted in many men being horrifically wounded, or killed, or left with crippling psychological injuries that would leave them changed for life. But what was especially unusual about Waterloo is that it was such a tiny battle field for such a huge number of men.
Let’s get some perspective on the battlefield and the scale. Remember the figures I’m about to give are very much approximations when it comes to ancient battles.
Alexander the Greats great victory at Issus was probably fought between 40,000 Greeks and 100,000 Persians including their allies
The battle of Cannae was a key battle in the wars between Rome and Carthage. It is remembered as being a supreme example of tactical brilliance by General Hannibal Barca against Rome. It was fought between around 50,000 Carthaginians and 84,000 Romans.
The battle of Adrianople could have had around 25,000 Eastern Romans against maybe 80,000 Visigoths and Alans.
After the fall of Rome and the transition to the Byzantine Empires, the size of battles in Europe dropped drastically.
The pivotal battle in European history of the middle ages happened at Tours where the Muslim conquests of Europe were finally checked. This involved probably around 15,000-25,000 on either side.
The battle of Hastings – you know 1066 and all that – was down to probably around 8,000-12000 a side.
The battle of Yorktown had perhaps around 28,000 men involved, mostly on the American side.
By contrast at Waterloo, the Allied army was 68,000 strong, and the French 72,000. They would fight crammed into an area no more than 3 miles wide.Marshal Grouchy was marching nearby with 33,000 men and the Prussians had around 50,000 men in the combat area. That means around 223,000 men were involved in the around Waterloo and Wavre on 18 June 1815. That’s slightly more than at Gettysburg.
The rain and Napoleon’s decision to batter the enemy rather than manoeuvre meant that this would be a meat grinder of a battle. Slogging and pounding were going to be the defining features of the battle. More men than were present at Issus were going to fight to the death in a tiny area between two ridges, in the mud, horse shit, blood and smoke.
Now think about the numbers involved here. The French I Corp under General D’Erlon was around 22,000 strong. That is nearly the size of the army that the Eastern Roman Empire could muster at Adrianople. Despite all the advances in technology, gunpowder and command structures, the way the army was actually controlled wasn’t that much more technically advanced than the Romans. Orders were shouted, trumpeted, drummed, and sent by messenger. Men moved by marching or riding. But the size of the army being commanded was now huge, the weapons more deadly, and the consequences for mistakes more punishing than ever. A Roman cohort ordered to march and mistakenly expose itself could usually rely on fighting its way out or stubbornly holding on till other cohorts rectified the problem. A miss deployed British regiment could be wiped out be French artillery in minutes. In the last episode I mentioned a British regiment that mistook enemy French cavalry for friendly Brunswick cavalry. They didn’t form square, and were shattered, losing 287 men in minutes. Now just at the time when army commanders could make fewer and fewer mistakes, they were having to command more and more men in more intricate ways that made the chances of a blunder even greater. Just to get a Napoleonic army onto a battle field, pointed in the right direction and fighting was a major achievement. By the end of the day at Waterloo, Napoleon was trying to do the impossible by fighting two battles at the same time. One against the Allied army of Wellington, and one against the approaching Prussians. The fact that he still nearly won is astonishing.
What was the battlefield of Waterloo itself like? Why was it here that the retreating Wellington had chosen to stand? Above all else, Wellington was a master at identifying and using terrain. For Napoleon the terrain was often incidental to the battle. It was speed, aggression, clever moves and great timing that won his battles. For Wellington, battles were avoided unless the odds favoured him. Terrain was always used to offset the weaknesses of his force and play to its strengths.
To understand the battlefield , we need to zoom out a bit to get a birds eye view, then zoom in to the level of the individuals at standing height. Waterloo on Wellington’s side was a really strong position. It was a high, long ride that was at right angles to the road to Brussels. It had a light wood behind it, and at the very top of the ridge was a sunken road, hidden from view. The cross roads of the road to Brussels and the sunken lane was a nice summit with a large Elm tree, where Wellington made his HQ for most of the day.
Some senior officers and Napoleon criticised Wellington’s choice. But the position had been carefully chosen by Wellington and kept up his sleeve. Above almost all his other many talents, Wellington was a sheer genius at picking and using terrain. The position allowed Wellington to hide much of his force from French view. That gave him surprise in his movements. It also allowed him to shield much of his force from artillery fire, especially his precious line infantry, supply wagons and medical facilities. The Allied army would be kept sheltered and supplied. It also had a wood behind it. Whilst that seemed to many like a dangerous disadvantage, Wellington had studied it previously. He knew that actually it had little undergrowth and so his army could slip through it if retreat was necessary. He also knew that the battlefield position had two farms Hougemont and La Hay Saint that stood out in front of the allied ridge like bastions, with another farm . Rather than creating Grand Artillery batteries of cannons like the French, Wellington supplemented his line regiments with light guns to boost their already impressive fire power. At ground level there were good views of the valley and the French positions, whilst the Allied troops were carefully concealed.
It is also worth noting that Wellington was only willing to fight at Waterloo because he expected the Prussians to arrive to help. He would not have chosen to make a stand here unless the Prussians were coming. He received messages indicating that they were so his left flank was left “in the air” precisely because he expected them to arrive from his left. His centre was carefully hidden behind the ridge and his right was anchored by Hougemont. Interestingly he sent 17,000 men further to his right, away from the main battle. These were to be his safety valve. They were to keep the routes to the sea open in case the Prussians didn’t come, and to prevent Napoleon swinging round to his right to cut him off or attack his flank.
Wellington’s plan for the day was simple. Select highly defensible terrain, hide troops out of sight, and put small forces into his bastions to hamper French assaults. Be miserly with using reserves, cling to the ridge, wear the French and wait for the Prussians to swing the weight of numbers decisively against the French. In boxing terms, it was classic defensive fighting from a technical scientist of the ring.
Napoleon also had a fairly simple plan. He wanted to keep the guard in reserve. He would pound the British with his artillery, use his cavalry to force them into squares, then send in his infantry to punish them before perhaps using the Guard to break the most stubborn points of resistance. He would smash the Allied army out of the way, crush it, and take Brussels, then swing round to rejoin Grouchy and pursue the retreating Prussians. Carrying on the boxing metaphor, Napoleon was abandoning boxing science in favour of hard punches in a close up match.
Napoleon seemed to believe that the Prussians were a spent force after Ligny, and that Grouchy would be able to push them back to stop them joining Wellington. He also clearly seemed to feel that manoeuvre at Waterloo was counter productive. The ground was still a mud bath. Trying to get round Wellingtons right would simply force Wellington back towards the Prussians, not away from them. Moving to Wellington’s left would potentially just push Wellington back along his lines of supply and achieve very little beyond delaying the battle.
There are a huge number of myths around Waterloo, about Wellington, Napoleon and the various forces. Historians and armchair generals have a lot of trouble remaining impartial on events and the actions of the armies. Revisions can range from Napoleon the incompetent to how Napoleon the brilliant was robbed of his triumph by the Prussians. Indeed if you read some accounts, you could believe that Napoleon actually won Waterloo. Most accounts in English refer to Waterloo as a British victory or even an English one over the French, where Wellington proved himself the better general than Napoleon.
As always on the podcast, I have to say the reality is much more complicated. By the end of the day the French army was in a panicked rout. No amount of spin can change the end result; because spoilers, the French army was no longer a cohesive force in the field, and Napoleon was shortly to be out of power and in British captivity, but it was as a result of a multinational effort, and was much more than just Wellington beating Napoleon.
How events got to that point though is truly fascinating. If you listened to my last episode, you will have heard me speculating on the role stress played in the battle, and people’s decisions. Every Napoleonic battle was stressful, but Waterloo was going to be on another level. I cannot imagine the mental strain on Wellington, Napoleon, Marshal Ney, Marshal Soult and the many others. Making good decisions under stress is very hard. When stressed humans often fall back on practised responses, whether or not they fit the circumstances. Napoleon’s physical condition was well below healthy after a difficult start to the campaign. Marhsal Ney seemed to be suffering from PSTD since Russia in 1812 and was clearly tormented by his decisions to betray first Napoleon then the restored Bourbon monarchy. Soult was a poor chief of staff and in any event hadn’t been in the role long enough to get a real grip. Not that all of the Allied commanders were in great shape. Prince Blucher had been extremely badly injured two days before after the battle of Ligny. He nearly died when his horse rolled on him and was almost killed by the French as a result. Also he was not entire psychologically stable and was extremely bloodthirsty for revenge on the French. Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton GCB was a hard fighting Welsh officer. He had been recommended to Wellington by Francisco De Miranda and had served with distinction during the Peninsular war. (Oh and if you were following Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions Podcast, yes it was that Francisco De Miranda – he really did get everywhere). Picton was probably also suffering from PTSD by the time of the 100 Days Campaign, and had to be pressed by Wellington to accept command of the 5th Infantry Division. This was a fine division indeed, including as it did elements of Highlanders, old line regiments, rifles, a Hanoverian Brigade and horse artillery. It would see action in various forms in the Boer Wars and both World Wars until finally being disbanded in April 2012. Not only was Picton mentally unwell, but he had actually been shot through the hip at Quatre Bras, but he and his servant concealed the wound so he could continue to fight. He gained a glorious reputation after Waterloo, and was probably pretty crucial to the British so history tends to ignore his conviction for torturing slaves during his career – he was only acquitted because his lawyers successfully argued that torture without trial was legal under the colonies Spanish laws. The Prince of Orange was inexperienced and incompetent.
It wasn’t just the senior officers who were under stress. Battalion and company officers faced the additional problem of giving orders in difficult circumstances and translating the high level directives from senior officers into battlefield directions.
I’m going play you a short clip now. It’s taken from a film I haven’t seen. It gives you a wonderful example of the noise and complexity you might hear in a Napoleonic battle. The film is actually a recreation of the Battle of New Orleans, so the period is in a few years of Waterloo, and the sounds are very authentic. It gives an idea of what people had to deal with. Now imagine you had to give orders in this cacophony of noise.
[Sounds of firing, cannon, shouting and bagpipes].
Now, the Emperor was ready. Now was the time to start in ernest. The displays, the careful moves, the clever plans. The time for that was past. Napoleon had to beat the Allied army. The Armee Du Nord performed its final grand review on the slopes in front of La Bell Alliance. This is the last time the great display of French Napoleonic finery was on display. Trumpets blaring, drums beating, flags flying in the wind. Eagles gleaming in the sun and shouts of Vive L’Emperor. Just the spectacle would have been awe inspiring. Knowing that great mass of disciplined, power men would soon be attacking would shake the resolve of some armies.
Now came the critical point of the campaign. Men had marched with heavy loads and sore feet. Boots didn’t come fitted for left and right. They were both the same, and had to be broken in. Some soldiers feet were so swollen by the end of a march that boots either had to be cut off, or left on with the attendant risks of trench foot and infections. A large number of soldiers were already dead or wounded along with horses and animals. Civilians across the area’s affected would have fled, or if not they would have hidden their valuables as best they could from the inevitable looting that would always accompany armies whether friendly or not. A very few brave and enterprising folk stayed and tried to turn a profit by selling everyday items to troops at vastly inflated prices.
Think about how that actually impacted the civilians. There was no social security or disaster relief fund. No international aid agencies or United Nations to help. Unlike todays disaster zones where mechanised transport of some kind is usually available to help with evacuations, or make repairs, in 1815 it was muscle power, sweat and maybe horses that were used to rebuild. Imagine having to scoop up your children and leave your home because an army is marching through. Are they friendly? Even if they are, is it safe to remain? Friendly armies might confiscate your food, requisition your horses, maybe even conscript your children, or force you to act as a guide. Leave the decision too long though and you might not have time to flee. Friends and foes aren’t always easy to identify at a distance.
Where do you go? Do you flee to a nearby city? Risk being trapped there penniless and perhaps under siege in the future? Or do you try to head to the wider countryside, perhaps to starve or die of exposure or disease. Robbers will prey on the weak and the isolated. Cavalry from the various armies might chase you or you might be mistaken for a spy and hung.
Even if you did avoid the armies, you might return to your home to find it a burnt out shell. With no insurance or government programs to assist you, no banks or savings accounts to draw on, no organised charities, the loss of a house or a farm due to a stray foraging party being careless with a torch or having it reduced to rumble by battle could leave you destitute. You might have to flee to the city or hope neighbours can help. Starvation and death were real possibilities.
This is the horrific dilemma that was being faced as Europe in 1815 prepared itself for a war that it thought was over. All across Belgium people had to decide. To stay, to run, to fight the French or to oppose them, or somehow wait long enough to know. All Frenchmen and women asked themselves “What sane man or woman would want another war?” And yet, and yet the fat French king had replaced the great old soldiers and heroes of France with preening boys in his royal guard. The hated Austrians had worked with the Prussians and occupied Paris, and now, and now the Emperor had returned to right the wrongs. Many French people wondered how could any true Frenchman not march at this hour, with the returned veterans. Iron hard men who had fought at Austerlitz and Borodino.
Perhaps the new soldiers noticed that the Sergeant had lost half his fingers in the cold of Russia? Maybe they thought “surely today, after the beating of the Prussians yesterday, surely the Marshal would crush the hated British, those cold hearted money lenders who paid Germans and Austrians to kill Frenchmen so they could sit back in safety and steal French land.” Wasn’t this what they had joined for? To march under Le Rougeaud Marshal Ney himself, that brave winner of battles. Fiercest of the Marshals with great victories to his name.
If most people have heard of Marshal Ney at all, it is probably only as a blunderer at Waterloo. I’m probably going to give him a bit of criticism here too, so I want to give a picture of the man before we get into detail. It isn’t fair to reduce a historical persons life to just one brief snapshot and then heavily criticise them. I can’t cover everyone the podcast mentions, but I can at least try to give you a background on Ney. If you wanted to find an example of a real life D’Artanian of the Three Musketeers, you could certainly pick Ney. He was born in a working class family, on French German border. After a getting bored of civilian life he joined the army. Because pre-revolutionary France would only allow aristocrats to be officers he had to join the cavalry as a private. He showed immense talent and bravery, rising to sergeant and then officer in the post revolutionary army. He was periodically wounded and lead various cavalry charges. He rose to the rank of General and Marshal in 17 years. He commanded a corp successfully, decisively winning battles like Echlingen, and being instrumental at Jena. He also managed some successes in Spain, including a clever rearguard action against Wellington despite being heavily outnumbered, but his fiery temper lead to clashes and dismissal from command. His shining hour came in the disastrous Russian campaign. Here he was instrumental in holding the battered and frozen rear guard together. His courage became legend. He shouldered a musket with his troops in the bitterest cold, under Russian artillery fire and cavalry charges by savage cossacks. Bearded, frost covered and unbroken, he was separated from the army and thought lost, only to emerge from the snows like a hero from a novel.
Here’s a quote from Napoleons Marhals describing it [QUOTE] He was the last man to cross the Niemen at Kovno and reached German soil. General Dumas, one of the officers of the general staff, relates how he was resting in an inn at Gumbinnen, when one evening a man entered clad in a long brown cloak, wearing a long beard, his face blackened with powder, his whiskers half burnt by fire, but his eyes sparling with brilliant lustre. “Well here I am at last he said “what General Dumas, do you not know me?” “No, who are you?” “I am the Rear Guard of the Grand Army Marshal Ney. I have fired the last musket on the bridge of Kovno: I have thrown into the Neiman the last of our arms, and I have walked hither as you see across the forests” [END QUOTE] In the difficult year of 1813 he lead at least five desperate infantry charges with conscript troops, but his overall strategic movements were erratic and poor.
He was almost as famous in the army as Napoleon. He was loved by the men. The Bravest of the Brave. The picture that emerges is of a clever, aggressive, difficult man. One who was tactically brilliant in action, but sometimes haphazard and not at his best in independent command. His later career displayed elements of a strange indecisiveness and some commentators have suggested he might have suffered from PTSD. Being always in the heart of the action under fire for years at a time would certainly be enough to trigger it. In a strange way he was a bit like Blucher. A born fighter, loved by the men, he needed a brilliant and detail oriented chief of staff to ensure that the basics were covered. He was simple in his tastes, hating society, with plain manners and difficulty reading. He was the very image of the bluff, blunt plain soldier. If you are a Bernard Cornwall fan, then he is very much like Sharpe himself. His wife was by contrast a high spirited society lady, pushing him to be more ambitious.
As dawn broke on 16 June 1815 near Quatre Bras, the fiery, aggressive Marshal Ney, seemed curiously quiet. The Marshal spent the morning half heartedly massing some elements of his I & II Corp plus conducting reconnaissance. Here though was the moment for him to change history. The cross roads at Quatre Bras were still lightly held. Napoleon marched to crush the Prussians. I want to emphasise again that right now, at this point, Napoleon was on cracking form. He had performed the nineteeth century equivalent of a blitzkrieg. The daring, the speed and success of his opening moves was astonishing.
An early assault by Ney would push the British back, and perhaps if he had moved fast enough he would not only have captured the cross roads with the vital road to Nevilles that linked the British and Prussians. Perhaps he could have caught the scattered elements of the British army as it marched to Quatre Bras. If this had happened, then it is possible the British would have suffered a military catastrophe on a scale equal to Dunkirk or worse. The annihilation of the main British field army in Europe under their best commander would probably have destroyed the British government, wrecked the army for a decade and cut the finances off from the coalition. Napoleons defeat of the Prussians would have probably knocked the Prussians out of the war, secured Belgium, instilled an inferiority complex of no mean order in the allies to remind them that the Master of War had returned, and it would have made him politically supreme in France.
With that in mind, it is no exaggeration to say that Marshal Neys actions were crucial and have been the subject of intense scrutiny. What is certain is that orders from Napoleon were received by Ney by 10:30, allowing for the imprecise nature of time keeping and recording. Please remember that timings might sound precise, but they aren’t. It is unlikely that officers watches would have been in strict synchronicity with each other. Here is Napoleon’s order to Ney:
[QUOTE] “There, according to circumstances, I shall decide on my course, perhaps at three in the afternoon, perhaps this evening. My intention is that, immediately after I have made up my mind, you will be ready to march on Brussels: I will support you with the Guard which will be at Fleurus or Sombreffe, and I shall expect you to arrive at Brussels tomorrow morning. You will march this evening if I make up my mind early enough for you to be informed of it today, and to accomplish three or four leagues this evening, and to be at Brussels at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. You should dispose your troops in the following manner: the first division at two leagues in advance of Quatre Bras, if there is no hindrance; six divisions about Quatre Bras, and one division at Marbais.” [END QUOTE]
Similar orders were sent from Marshal Soult to Marshal Ney and must have been received shortly after Napoleon’s orders as Ney replied to Soult at 11:00. Also you are hearing an English translation of this order written in French. You are hearing it with a C21st century mindset, absent the contexts and subtexts that would probably have been clear to someone in 1815. Certainly Ney didn’t seem to see any problems with Napoleon’s order. He replied to Soult, saying [QUOTE] “All information to hand tends to show that there are around 3,000 hostile infantry at Quatre Bras and very few cavalry. I think that the Emperors arrangements for the advance on Brussels will be carried out without great difficulty.” [END QUOTE]
What seems really poor of Ney was that it was only after receiving the Emperor’s orders that he began drafting orders to get General Reille moving. The key thing to remember about all of this is that Marshal Ney was a senior Marshal of France, a tier only just below the Emperor himself. A man in this position had to demonstrate leadership, courage, initiative, high level organisational skills, tactical and strategic abilities of the 1st rank, and the rare ability to identify the pivotal moment and seize it. Ney had an amazing career as a marshal.
Sometime in the morning a more urgent order was sent from Napoleon via Soult to Ney. It read [QUOTE] Monsieur le Marechal, an officer of the lancers has just informed the emperor that the enemy has appeared in force near Quatre Bras. Concentrate the corps of Counts Reille and D’Erlon and that of Count Valmy, who is just marching to join you. With these forces you must engage and destroy all enemy forces that present themselves. Blucher was at Namur yesterday and it is unlikely that he has sent any troops towards Quatre Bras. Thus you will only have to deal with the forces coming from Brussels. Marshal Grouchy is moving on Sombreffe as I informed you, and the Emperor is going to Fleurus. You should address future reports to His Majesty there. [END QUOTE] Napoleon left for Fleurus at 10:00 so this order was probably with Ney by around 11:30 to 12:00. This order was clear and unequivocal. The enemy at Quatre Bras was to be engaged and destroyed.
No military command of Ney’s level can really sit on their hands and wait orders in a situation like this. Ney had to be ready to act, organised and able to do so as required. He knew that he had an enemy of some kind to his front, that his Emperor was seeking the Prussians and that he had to be ready to be in Brussels the next day. He had orders to have troops at Quatre Bras, and by mid day had been told of Napoleon’s plans for the day, which even included Napoleon’s accurate prediction of the arrival of allied re-enforcements from Brussels during the day. Even if Ney thought the enemy didn’t have many troops there, or that they would swiftly retreat, he should have been moving to carry out his mission. He should have already had his troops ready to carry out these orders. First light was at 04:00 so he had plenty of time to be up at 05:30 if he was resting the troops and have them moving by 09:00. Then he would have had his two corp up in position just south of Quatre Bras by the time he received the first order from Napoleon. He would have been able to make an overwhelming attack at Quatre Bras at 11:30 if he didn’t act on the first order. The first real allied re-enforcements wouldn’t have arrived until 15:00 so the allies would have been cut off from each other. At 14:00 Ney had 18,000 troops against the Anglo-Allied force of 7,000 but only 4,000 French were put into action.
He certainly sent orders to his core commanders Generals Reille, and D’Erlon. Neither of these officers displayed much sense of urgency. They delayed and muddled their marches somewhat. Ney seemed content to let things drift and Reille also waited for orders before even getting his spread out troops concentrated ready to move, in almost a mirror of his commanders behaviour. By 08:00 the troops Reille commanded were up and armed ready to go, but the orders to move weren’t given. D’Erlon was badly held up in his march because he was behind Reille. Worse, Reille decided to delay his move further, ignoring Ney’s eventual order to move, because he was worried about enemy troops on his flank. This was idiotic. Any small Prussian units on his flank were for the army centre or army right to deal with as they moved. This was a fact that should have been obvious to a senior general like Reille.
So here at a crucial point in the campaign, a campaign that the fate of France rested on, apathy and delay reigned.
Now that is a fairly conventional narrative that I’ve given you. It is worth briefly pointing out that some historians have a very different view on this. I’m conscious that there is always dispute between historians on most topics. The alternative view is that Ney was justified in waiting for Napoleon’s order, and that Napoleon was waiting on changing events as the day developed. This alternative view is much more dependent on the “if there is no hinderance” phrase in Napoleon’s order, and the idea that Ney was justified in waiting for more positive orders. This is not the majority consensus amongst historians. It seems somewhat undermined by later orders as well to be honest.
By 12:30 though, Ney had a good force to take Quatre Bras but didn’t actually fully start the battle until 14:00 when he finally launched an attack. So for hours in the morning Ney could have sent three divisions against the single, weak and poorly supplied Dutch division that was bravely holding the cross roads. Indeed at the start of the action at 14:00 Marshall Ney had 10,000 men and 30 guns with 2000 cavalry and an emergency reserve of 2,400 Guard Cavalry, facing only 8,000 infantry, some with only 10 rounds of ammunition, and 16 guns.
The lack of action had not escaped Napoleon’s notice. Cannon fire can be heard for miles and the absence of sounds of cannon fire from Ney’s direction told the emperor that the attack hadn’t started. At 13:00 he penned a furious note to Ney [QUOTE] “Monsieur le Prince de la Moskova, I am surprised at your great delay in executing my orders – there is no more time to waste. Attack everything in from of you with the greatest impetuosity. The fate of France is in your hands.“ [END QUOTE]
The delay until 14:00 gave the allies hours to repair the situation. Wellington had had time to reach the Prussians to talk to Blucher and learn that the Prussians intended to stand their ground and fight. He returned to Quatre Bras to find that despite all the delays, Ney was putting the position under immense pressure. Worryingly Ney had received reinforcements of 3 of Kellermans finest Cavalry Brigades but he stationed them 5km back and forgot about them. In all Ney had around 40,000 men under his command, but his failures to get them up, moving and in position early meant he was fighting with far, far fewer.
Allied re-inforcements had already started to arrive at 15:00 just before Wellington himself. The situation was desperate for the British though. Ney’s delay had robbed him of an easy victory, but the British force was close to cracking. Wellington even ended up nearly getting cut down by French cavalry at one point, but his arrival had stabilised the situation with fresh troops arriving on the allied side. He knew it was in the balance saying in reflection on the battle [QUOTE] By God if I had come up 5 minutes later the battle was lost [END QUOTE] The battle was on a knife edge and included moments of epic bravery on both sides, but allied troops kept arriving to support the beleaguered defenders. The French cavalry nearly shattered the British and Dutch, but heroic efforts kept the defenders together, then as Ney prepared a hammer blow for the British at 15:30 re-inforcements arrived spearheaded by the 95th Rifles. I’m sure the Sharpe fans out there can picture him arriving on the battle field in the knick of time at a critical moment.
What made the battle especially difficult for the French was that the British were experts at concealing troops in terrain, and suddenly leaping out to deliver punishing volleys at close range. Ney was becoming frustrated, but seemed to be in a strong position after early gains. He was now positioned for his main assault. Three regiments of British Infantry – 1st (Royals), 32nd (Cornwall), and the 79th (Cameron Highlanders) were viciously engaged with the General Bachleu’s division but eventually pushed them back. According to some of my sources, this appeared to cause the French to be more cautious in their attacks just at a time when vigorous assaults were needed. My sources also suggest the French were mentally put on the back foot by being reminded of the constant defeats at the hands of Wellington in Spain. I’m not sure how much weight to put on those opinions. Without a lot of first hand evidence, it is easy to project onto people in the past. How many of Ney’s men had actually fought in Spain for instance. A far simpler explanation is that the French weren’t well co-ordinated and they suffered for their delays. It doesn’t require complex psychology to see that troops suffering heavy casualties in an assault against a smaller force might well be a bit battered and more cautious. The French assaults were a fair way ahead of their supporting artillery. Bachleu’s division were pushed back to their start position by the British counter assault. The British who followed the retreating French then came under intense French artillery fire as the French fell back and into range of their artillery.
Skirmishing between the lines was vicious in the extreme, and the Rifles on the British left were eventually pushed back by French skirmishers. The Namur Road was now occupied by the French and the Allied flank was exposed. The French had hardly any troops but the Rifles were the only thing holding Wellington’s flank and preventing the French Rolling it up. Ok, I’ll make a really short explanation of flanking. The flank is basically the side of a military unit or position. Imagine a line or two of 100 men. standing shoulder to shoulder. It is hard to break through that line when you run at it, with them all shooting at you. But if you come round the side, suddenly instead of facing 100 men, you are only facing the one or two on the end of the line. You can then push through them and cause chaos, rolling them up like a blind. Regiments and even armies would sometimes attempt to flank the enemy to get round the sides and rear to shatter the enemy. It required co-ordination and timing. You had to pin the enemy in place with a small force in front whilst you moved your troops around the sides. You needed to have reserves ready to exploit the chaos. You could be very vulnerable to counter attack as you moved.
At around 16:30, some hard pressed Brunswick regiments attempted to withdraw to a stronger position but were broken by French Lancers. The Duke of Brunswick was killed. The chaos spread and the 42 Highland regiment mistook French cavalry for friendly Brunswick cavalry. They didn’t form square quickly enough. Hundreds of men of the light company were ridden down and sabred or lanced by the French 6th Lancers. All in all the 42nd lost 284 men. The French cavalry alone couldn’t take the cross roads, and despite the odd disaster, the Allies formed squares and beat off the enemy horsemen. The allies were hurting though and the men were aware that this was a hard fought affair.
Meanwhile Napoleon had been hammering the Prussians at Ligny. He had them pinned at Ligny under intense artillery fire. It was a brutal battle. The Prussians had declined Wellingtons advice to deploy on the reverse of a sloop to shelter from French artillery. They suffered for it. The battle swung between the two sides, but the French began to gain the upper hand. Napoleon had carefully managed his Imperial Guard reserves and after brutal fighting was positioned to launch them at the desperately weakened Prussian centre. He scented an opportunity to exploit the victory and turn it into a annihilation of the Prussians. He had formed the idea that he could by late afternoon expect the victorious Ney to swing his troops around from Quatre Bras and catch the Prussians in the flank and rear. To assist him, the Emperor sent an order to General D’Erlon to change direction from going to support New at Quatre Bras, and march to aid him at Ligny instead. D’Erlon had been delayed badly but was finally getting towards a point where he could have soon arrived at Quatre Bras to support Ney. His arrival at around 16:00 would have probably tipped the balance decisively in Ney’s favour. Ney was waiting anxiously for him. The Allied reinforcements had stopped Ney’s great assault and the crisis of the Allies of 15:00 had stabilised but if D’Erlon and his 20,000 men arrived, nothing would have stopped Ney. When Ney learned that the Emperor had redirected D’Erlon he was furious and countermanded the order. D’Erlon duly swung his march from Ney to Napoleon and then back to Ney. An almost in excusable blunder. If French reinforcements had arrived on the Prussians flank, it is likely that Napoleon would have broken them and trapped them between the two French forces. He would then have been free to swing the entire Armee Du Nord to face the remnants of the allies.
Finally, in a last desperate effort, and a foreshadowing of Waterloo, Ney ordered his heavy cavalry to seize the crossroads. By now he was virtually raving saying [QUOTE] Ah those English balls, I wish they were in my belly [END QUOTE] Ney sent for Guiton’s Cuirassier Brigade in one last attempt to win. The heavy cavalry charged, but without any support and without horse artillery. The British 69th Foot fired a volley at 30 paces. The British square was charged by the 8th Cuirassiers and broken up. Cuirassier Henry with the help of Maréchal-des-logis Massiet jumped to the ground and picked up the king’s colour of the II Battalion of the 69th (the South Lincolnshire) from the arms of ensign Clarke who had been hacked down by 23 saber cuts. For this, Cuirassier Henry received the Legion of Honour. Alas despite the desperate bravery of the late charge, the cavalry couldn’t hold the cross roads and were driven back.
By the end of the day Ney had blundered his way to losing a battle that was handed to him on a plate. He had delayed for no purpose, lost sight of his troops and muddled his command. His former fiery aggression and ability to know how to time an assault seemed to have deserted him. The mix up with D’Erlon had certainly cost him the chance for victory, but frankly he should have seized it earlier without him. His interference though with the Emperors order to D’Erlon meant that the opportunity to utterly annihilate the Prussians was lost. In the end D’Erlon and his corp spent a day marching from place to place, missing all the fighting. Certainly Ney had fought a hard battle. He inflicted higher causalties on the enemy than he suffered, and he was able to take Quarte Bras on the 17th June when the British began to withdraw, but whilst some historians have called this a victory, which it is if you just compared the number killed, overall it was a strategic defeat.
Now as the sun set, the campaign was all but decided. Napoleon had won his last victory – Ligny, but he had all but lost the campaign. The last great, brilliant gamble of the great emperor was almost over. All through the night, exhausted, hungry and wounded men tried to rest and recover. The worst wasn’t close to over though. The survivors would now have to face the hell that was Waterloo. But before we close this episode, we actually need to quickly deal with the missing day between Quatre Bras and Waterloo.
Exhausted and hungry men and even some women would have collapsed into sleep that night. The next day broke with pleasant weather. The Allies had been mauled badly. By 09:00 Wellington received messages telling him about the near disaster of Ligny. Now was the time for the British to retreat otherwise they would be cut off from the already retreating Prussians. Here was a last chance for the French. The Prussians in retreat, and the British army having to pull back alone and unsupported. Yet again though, Ney seemed lethargic. Napoleon toured the battlefield of Ligny, assessing it, talking to the wounded and re-organising his troops. Messages finally crawled in from Marshal Ney informing Napoleon of events at Quatre Bras the day before. The Emperor finally arrived at the realisation of what was actually going on. His enemies were in retreat whilst his Marshal sat on his hands again, but with swift action, the enemy could be at his mercy. Napoleon’s first words to Ney were the vicious “You have ruined France” Napoleon began to drive his army hard in pursuit. Marshal Grouchy was dispatched with 30,000 troops to chase the Prussians
Now happens one of those strange, intangible events in history. A random occurrence that no one at the time could predict, but which changed things irrevocably. Throughout the morning, the weather had got hotter and heavier. Men tired from marching removed great coats, stripped down to thin shirts, rolled up sleeves and abandoned excess baggage in the extreme heat. Suddenly though, as the French cavalry began their intense pursuit, the storm clouds gathered and darkened. The British cannon covering the retreat opened fire, and as they did, the storm broke with fury. Temperatures plummeted and the open fields were turned into mud baths. Horses that tried to move off the roads into the open fields quickly sank. Pursuit slowed to a crawl as the roads become clogged. Muskets misfired, and the cold rain made the hot sweat freeze the bodies of men and horses.
Gradually the Anglo-Allied force struggled to the ridge at Mont St Jean later known as Waterloo. This was the last obstacle between the French and Brussels. The gloom of night gathered, but tired men could find almost no food or shelter. Officers paid inflated prices even for looted chairs to avoid sleeping in the mud. Uniforms colours dissolved as the dyes ran out of them. Rifle green became mud soaked black, whilst the bright red coats of the line regiments typically turned a washed out brown scarlet. Many men hadn’t eaten for days, but a lucky few “acquired” food from various sources. Luckier still were those men who found a sheltered sleeping spot. Unluckiest of all were those cavalry units sent out on picket duty. The murk made this job difficult, tired the already exhausted horses, and left them exposed to the elements on top of horses but not allowed to sleep in the saddle. Horse artillery men would sleep on their limbers if they could, and generals ousted people from farm houses to get shelter for the night. Exhausted gunners who had been in action all day, dragging their guns through the mud sank down for rest.
Finally orders ceased and men took what rest and shelter they could as the rain raged on through the night of misery. Not that the French had things any better as they halted on the ridge at La Belle Alliance opposite the Anglo Allied force. Even the vaunted Imperial Guard suffered, although not to the same degree as the line troops. So passed the night; brutal and with only the promise of battle on the next day.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. What I find fascinating here, is not the military actions. It is the hints of the psychology at work underneath. Why did clever, experienced soldiers make such terrible mistakes? Was it just the normal confusion of war, or was it more? Was there PTSD? Did the pressure of command lead to myopic focus on the wrong things? Was it just inevitable? Things go wrong in war and Ney was a man who was not good in an independent command? There’s an old expression “the reasons you get into trouble, are the reasons you don’t get out” Putting Ney in the position he was put in was perhaps the cause of the trouble, so Ney was the reason the French army didn’t get out of it. Why was an aggressive assault oriented commander suddenly so hesitant? Why did he suddenly switch from hesitancy late in the battle to almost insane aggression with his cavalry? He was an experienced commander, he’d won battles before, so why did he do so badly? Ultimately we will never know. Perhaps only Ney could know what was going on in his head. The stress of combat is beyond anything most people experience, but for a fighting commander in the Napoleonic Wars it was incredibly stressful. Command was at the front, under artillery fire with thousands of mens lives directly in the hands of the commander. Ordering men forward into the face of muskets and cannons. Watching them get shot, limbs blasted off, trampled by horses, closing up their ranks and marching onwards. That added to the stress load on a commander immensely. Commanders were probably always wondering if they had done enough, been clever enough, or fast enough.
Ultimately though Ney and the French did what they did and things turned out how they turned out. They would have to deal with the situation as it was, not as it might have been. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. Join me next time as we examine Waterloo.
BATTLE OF QUATRE & LIGNEY - NOON 16 JUNE 1815
Here we are then. The scene is set. It must be war. The politics, the philosophy and the cultures of the European great powers are now to be decided on the battlefields. In many ways this conflict was about far more than Napoleon, or even the ideals of the French revolution versus the Ancien Regime. This is the climax of a clash that defined Europe since the discovery of the New World. Would Europe be a land empire, ruled by the French, facing the mediterranean and projecting power to the old core of Western civilisation, into the Balkans and the middle east, or would the British Atlantic facing international empire triumph. That might sound outlandish, but some historians have certainly viewed it that way. Britain had financed Prussia and other nations to attack the French to conquer French oversea’s territories. William Pitt the Elder, a famous British politician had explicitly stated this aim “While we had France for an enemy, Germany was the scene to employ and baffle her arms.” meaning that Britain would arm and finance continental powers to weaken the French to seize French oversea’s colonies.
Hi Welcome to the Age of Victoria Podcast. I’m your host, Chris Fernandez-Packham.
If your new to the podcast, I’d strongly recommend listening to the introduction and the first 2 episodes. I’ve just been building up to the Waterloo campaign and the forging of the legend of Waterloo.
We talked about France quite a lot in the last episode, so I think now is the time to see what the coalition were doing and to take a closer look at the British army on the eve of its great triumph of 1815. I know that last time I said we would cover the invasion but we haven’t even looked at the British armed forces that would be fighting in the campaign.
Like France, Britain was one of the great powers of the age. She already possessed the seeds of the world dominating empire that would come to its height under the Victorians. She was not the super power colossus that she would become. The first traces of the industrial revolution were beginning to transform Britain but the real changes were far ahead. Still, if not quite the titan she would become, Britain was a financial powerhouse and had a surprisingly large population for her land size.
Britain was certainly militarily respected, especially after her Peninsular victories, but she was primarily regarded as a naval power. As I’d mentioned in earlier episodes, British foreign policy was bent towards supporting the navy and preventing any single power establishing dominance on the continent. The navy was, and remains, the Senior Service. In contrast the army was small and regarded with suspicion. It was mistrusted as being an instrument of royal power and repression. Its woeful performance in the American Wars and its habit of losing men in the thousands to disease in the Caribbean meant that it was not seen as an attractive prospect for recruits. In contrast the navy rarely saw defeat, was well armed and supplied, highly prestigious, allowed a great deal of advancement on merit, and provided the glorious possibility of prize money. The amounts could be staggering – some crews were lucky enough to receive 10 years pay after the capture of two Spanish frigates in 1799 and the British Captains got a then mind boggling £40,000. It is difficult to convert monetary values over time, but there is some excellent work out there and is an issue we will probably spend time on at various points in our podcast. As a rough estimate, that £40,000 would probably translate to £1.3 million in today’s 2017 money. Keep in mind though that this was before the mass consumer market, so whilst it might translate to the purchasing power of over £1.3 million, the products you could have spent it on would have varied enormously. Property, food and clothing were the essential items to cover, and the upper middle class would add servants to the list of essentials. So let’s take Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice as an example. I looked at an article to give us a comparison. This is taken from an article written in 1988 so inflation will have changed the figures a far bit. “How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy – Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice by JAMES HELDMAN (Persuasions #12, 1990)“
[QUOTE] Mr. Darcy is very wealthy. He has an income of £10,000 a year; if we multiply that by $33.13, then we see that Mr. Darcy has an income of well over $300,000 a year. On the face of it, that hardly makes him Lee Iacocca. But Mr. Darcy’s income is at least 300 times the per capita income in his day. Moreover, Mr. Darcy belongs to a very select group. G.E. Mingay, an economic historian, estimates that in 1790, about twenty years before the time of Pride and Prejudice, there were only 400 families among the landed gentry in England whose incomes fell within that range, a range from £5,000 to £50,000 a year, with the average being £10,000 a year. [END QUOTE]. That begins to give you an idea of how amazing that £40,000 in prize money was for those captains. With careful management they had acquired an income equivalent to Mr Darcy’s for around 4 years. That would probably have made them an eligible catch for any Elizabeth Bennets. As you can imagine events like this were lottery wins, but highly motivating for the Royal Navy.
In contrast the army paid a small amount for horses or guns captured. A prize money system existed but was fraught with delays. The British private soldier had to supplement his meagre income with looting – an offence that could potentially see him shot. Still, you will see that vast fortunes were looted by the Victorian army. The sacking of the Old Summer Palace in China in 1860 by the French, British and Indian troops is a notable example and the wounds it created fester to this day.
The British army of 1815, unlike the continental armies, was in theory almost entirely professional, made up of willing volunteers. Recruitment was a vexed issue as annual wastage for the British army in the Napoleonic Wars never fell below 16,000 men. Imagine finding 16,000 men every year. The army came to rely on tricks and dodges, plus a huge boost from foreign troops or mercenaries. A small number of naval shipmen were “pressed” but the army didn’t make use of a press A lot soldiers enlisted because poverty left them no other choice. A number were gaolbirds or convicted criminals, offered the choice between service or the gallows. Given the state of prisons during the 19th century, the risks of a soldiers life might have been more attractive, plus there might be a chance to dissert later. A small number joined for pure patriotism, others to escape unhappy marriages or starvation or the pure boredom of a long life behind a plough on the farm, some had been tricked by unscrupulous recruiting sergeants. The recruiting sergeants were more than willing to get men drunk to trick them into enlisting. There was an infamous incident in 1795 when a recruiting sergeant gave a gullible boy a shilling to buy him tobacco from a nearby shop. When the lad took the money, the sergeant grabbed him and told him that he’d take the King’s Shilling and was required to serve. Luckily the boys cries brought an angry mob to dunk the sergeant in a nearby pump. The recruiting sergeants were more than willing to get men drunk to trick them into enlisting.
In theory the army was rigidly structured on class lines. The officers were expected to be gentlemen. Commissions were purchased not earned on merit as in the French army. The system of commissions is actual a more complex issue than straight forward aristocratic privilege. They provided the officer with a stake in the regiment provided and were also a form of pension for a retiring officer when he came sell his commission. Whilst they allowed the talentless to rise, they allowed the rich and talented to gain command at a comparatively young age. The Duke of Wellington wouldn’t have achieved such a high rank at such a young age without the system.
Commissions could be granted for gallantry or patronage though, and any commission was considered to mark the holder as a gentleman. The commission itself had a fixed warrant price, but there was invariably an additional and illegal non-regulation premium. To avoid being accused of making an illegal payment over the regulation warrant price, the deal was made privately and usually handled via an agent. A good example is Edward Cooper Hodge of the 4th Dragoons. His father, Major Hodge 7th Hussars died near Quatre Bras the day before Waterloo. Edward Cooper Hodge was given a Cornets commission at 16 when he left Eaton by the Duke of York as an act of Patronage, sparing Hodge the £840 regulation price. His jump to Lieutenancy cost him £350 regulation and an additional £250. His Captaincy cost £2,035 regulation and £1,200 on top. His Majority and Lieutenant Colonelcy cost him even more. All told he paid over £9,620 for his ranks. It was money well spent though, as it gained him command of the 4th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Dragoon Guards at the Battle of Balaclava. His bravery at the battle earned him his full Colonelcy on merit. For his service during the battle of Balaclava he was promoted to Colonel on the 28th of November, 1854, and made a C.B.
For his services during the campaign, he also received the Crimean War medal with three clasps (which he disliked) and the Turkish Crimea medal. He received the 3rd Class Order of the Medjidie and was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honor. Promotion to Major-General and then Lieutenant General and various commands followed but he clearly remembered his beloved 4th (Royal Irish) as he got himself appointed Colonel of them in later life. When he finally died at his home at 26 Cornwall Gardens, London on the 10th of December, 1894, it was as General Sir Edward Cooper Hodge, G.C.B., Colonel of the 4th Dragoon Guards. Not bad for a boy from the small town of Weymouth in Dorset.
What particularly strikes me about Sir Edward’s career is the variety. He was clearly not a rich, thick aristocrat playing at soldiers. He got his introduction from a rich patron, and his quick rise up the ranks was by purchase, but his service in the Crimea was difficult and dangerous. It involved the major battles of Balaclava and Inkerman, the siege of Sebastopol, the night-attack on Russian outposts on the 19th of February, 1855, and the battle of Tchernaya. He certainly hungered for distinction. In his diary he wrote [QUOTE] I wish I could get the Legion of Honour and a high caste Turkish Order [END QUOTE]. He achieved both, but interestingly he felt that medals should be available to all front line troops who had been under fire. Idle bubbles were not what he strived for. He clearly earned his generals rank on merit. We will met him again.
Officers were expected to be brave, honest, and to lead from the front. They were often heavy drinkers, and given to fighting and duelling. This last custom caused Wellington significant agitation as he didn’t want to lose talented officers that way. He also felt it set a very bad example to the men, and he learned to distrust officers who drank heavily. Unlike some continental armies, the British Officer was by and large expected to be at the front sharing danger with his men. There were exceptions as with everything in life. Some NCO’s did receive field commissions provided they could read and write. Some gentlemen could not afford to purchase a commission. They served as private soldiers awaiting an officers vacancy and they messed with the officers. They were known as “Gentlemen Rankers” These Gentlemen held a social standing somewhere between the “proper officers” and the rank and file. They would receive purchase free commissions when a vacancy became available. They were a well known enough feature of the army to inspire Kipling to pen “The Gentlemen Rankers” but they weren’t common. Other educated men who couldn’t afford to purchase a commission could perhaps find a specialist role.
Like their French opponents, the British relied on a mix of musket armed infantry, with the study heavy .75 calibre Tower Infantry Musket known as the “Brown Bess”, combined with cavalry and artillery. The British army also included a number of dragoons plus some unique units like the light infantry armed with Baker Rifles, or the Rocket Battery composed of Congreaves artillery rockets. Specialist units of sappers and engineers were available, and the Marines were occasionally pressed into land service. All in all the British Army of the period, especially in the peninsular was highly professional, tough and to use the awful modern phrase “punched well above its weight.” It had its share of bad officers or low quality units, but if well led it had some world class units, especially the crack Light Division. Its military reputation in the Napoleonic period was mixed as it had suffered a number of disasters in Buenos Aires, Holland, Flanders, the US war of Independence and the War of 1812. The Victorians and modern British tend to remember the brilliance of Wellington in Spain and the success at Waterloo, and forget the mixed record of the period.
It was highly disorganised in terms of an overall structure. Hierarchies were confused, and the artillery was actually not part of the army at all. It reported to the Board of Ordinance in London. Its officers were promoted solely based on seniority, not merit. This caused Wellington no end of headaches and there were times when he was virtually at war with his own gunners. When he did find a gunnery officer he liked and wanted to have a command position, he was rarely able to get the officer into the position due to the obstinacy of the board in London. When praise was due, Wellington lavished it on his infantry and cavalry but rarely passed up a chance to snub his long suffering gunners. It caused a great deal of resentment. British troops in Ireland were not under the control of the War Office, instead they were moved to the control of the Irish Establishment. The Corp of Engineers also remained under separate control. Also, sitting uneasily along side this were the vast independent armies of the Honourable East India Company.
The British army suffered a habitual drink problem at all ranks, and many foreign military observers of the period considered it a drunken, barely disciplined rabble that fell apart if not carefully supplied. As we will see the Victorians took the view in general that since Napoleon was brilliant but was beaten by Wellington, then that made Wellington the greatest soldier who had ever lived. It followed that to try to reform the army was to tinker with the work of the Great Duke and that would be unthinkable. This would become more and more of a problem for the British as we move through the 19th century.
- The big difference between the British and European armies was that the small British army believed in the offensive fire power of the line combined with British fire drill and discipline. The British volunteer troops were trained for a minimum 6 months, compared to the 2-3 weeks for the French. Napoleon and the Marshals certainly did believe in extensive training, but with a few exceptions it was done much more on the march with blank rounds. The British line infantry was usually higher trained than most other armies, especially when it came to live fire practice.
The British expected to fire a minimum of 3 rounds a minute. Some of the very best could fire 5. That compared to the French standard of 2 to 3. Luckily the British, as the richest nation in the conflict could afford to keep up plentiful supplies of ammunition including a large number of live practise rounds as well as blank practice rounds.
With light troops or riflemen pouring fire into the columns as they approached, and then the disciplined and brutal volleys of the line regiments, the British created a murderous killing zone that was nearly impossible to cross. As a highly professional army they were far, far less likely to break under pressure from attacking columns than the conscript armies of Europe. It wasn’t that individual British troops were braver than other nations, rather there seemed to be a core of stubborn steadiness that kept the British army in place when others cracked. This might in part be due to the strong regimental system of the British but also that the British were beginning to see the NCO’s of the army as modern Roman Centurions. Many Victorians would go on to almost idolise Roman discipline, social customs and success at Empire and it is clear that as the role of the sergeant evolved, they came to be seen as the backbone of the Imperial Armies. The image of the tough, brave and loyal sergeant guarding the colours, stoic in the face of impossible odds armed only with a bayonet and a mighty beard or moustache was one that would tug the Victorians heartstrings. These were hard men like Sergeant William Napier V.C of the 13th Foot, himself the nephew of a Waterloo veteran. He won his V.C. rescuing a wounded man who was under fire. Napier began bandaging the private when he was hit above the eye himself. The blood flow nearly blinded him, and the enemy closed in. Williams fought them off, still tending to the wounded private and his own injuries. He then dragged the private back to the safety of the convoy. He refused an officers commission as a reward but accepted the V.C. and advancement to Sergeant Major. Already a Crimea Veteran of 4 major battles, he would go on to fight in another 9 battles in India before seeking his discharge. Later colonial wars would show that the Roman model of expecting small numbers of superbly trained and disciplined troops to take on horrific odds and win was largely right. The tough determination of men like Sergeant Williams certainly helped.
A quick note on some terminology. The British army is organised by way of regiments but the regiments are typically broken down into Battalions. It was rare for a whole regiment to serve with all its battalions together in the field. Most regiments fielded a battalion and retained another battalion in Britain that acted as a training and recruiting battalion. Some regiments would become single battalion regiments during the various reforms. Typically a battalion is given a number in front of the regiment name or number. Take the famous 24th Foot, a regiment with a distinguished history starting in 1689. It fluctuated between 1 and 2 battalions. During the most famous event in its history, Rourkes Drift, it had 2 battalions. So they would be referred to as 1/24 for the first battalion and 2/24 for the second battalion. More confusingly though, battalions would usually fight in collections of companies whilst sending some of their companies off to do other tasks. Therefore it was possible for a regiment or battalion to fight in a number of different actions at the same time. The 2/24 fought at the disaster of the Battle of Isandlwana but a company of them was present at the battle of Rourkes Drift at almost the same time. I should note though that Isandlwana was only a disaster from a British point of view. The Zulu’s would naturally have counted it as an exceptional military victory.
It would be a mistake to think that the British infantry was only a defensive force. As the Russians would find out at Balaclava or numerous colonial foes would realise, the British line was like the Roman legion, able to defend against mass attacks, or deliver a brutal assault. Riflemen Costello gives a good example [QUOTE] the 88th Foot [Irish] next deployed into line, advancing all the time towards their opponents, who seemed to wait very coolly for them. When they had approached to within 300 or 400 yards, the French poured in a volley or I should say a running fire from right to left. As soon as the British regiment had recovered the first shock, and closed their files on the gap it had made, they commenced advancing at double time until within 50 yards nearer to the enemy, when they halted and in turn gave a running fire from their whole line, and without a moment’s pause cheered and charged up the hill against them. The French meanwhile were attempting to reload. But being hard pressed by the British, who allowed them no time to give a second volley, came immediately to the right about, making the best of their way to the village.”[END QUOTE] That quote has some interesting points to pick up on. The French were firing at longer range in an organised fashion and to some good effect. The British regiment received the volleys but their morale remained high enough not just to stand or hold cover, but to actually advance with discipline. Notice that they are said to advance at the double but then halt, give a return volley at close range and then execute a charge into melee. That requires incredible discipline and bravery. Of course the 88th Regiment of Foot was an Irish regiment of renown “The Devils Own.” Wellington happily employed them as shock troops and street fighters in the Peninsular Campaigns. Strictly speaking though the 88th Foot did not become the Connaught Rangers until it merged with the 94th Foot much later.
Standing and receiving a British volley then a bayonet charge was a hellish experience and most enemies broke before the charge was pushed home rather than face a fierce Londoner or Highlander with a bayonet.
There is considerable debate about the bayonet as a weapon system. It is a fairly simple weapon. It was a knife, dagger or sword that fitted over our under the barrel of a musket or rifle. The idea was to give the wielder a close combat weapon, indeed it may have originated as a back up hunting blade. Soldiers naturally adapted it to serve other duties such as wood cutting, or later on wire cutting. They could be laced together in camp and rammed into the ground to make improvised cooking stands or tent pegs. Crucially when fitted they extended the length of a musket to various degrees, combining the advantages of a spear with the firepower of the musket. They also allowed the formation of infantry squares. These squares would have bayonets fixed and pointing outwards. Charging cavalry horses would refuse to press home into the hedge of spikes presented by the bayonet. Early bayonets would plug into the barrel of the musket, meaning that firing had to stop. Developments in attachment types meant that bayonets could be fitted and muskets still fired.
Some historians take the view that the bayonet had a huge impact on warfare. Bayonets made the pike obsolete but still allowed black powder infantry to fend off cavalry. They also believe that bayonets allowed infantry to engage in real melee combat rather than the less effective push of pikes of earlier eras. Other historians are more skeptical about it. Casualty rates caused by bayonets were extremely low. It was almost certain that either the side receiving the bayonet charge would break and retire rather than engaging in a stabbing melee, or they would hold and the attackers would refuse to push home the charge into the defenders bayonets. Whilst clearing a position is often vital in military actions, the fundament point of military engagements is to engage and destroy the enemies main force to reduce his will and ability to resist to zero. Causing an enemy to retreat for no gain didn’t really help achieve that. If the charge wasn’t pushed home, a short range firefight was often the result. This could be confused and deadly, and potentially isolated an attacker from his artillery support. Another drawback was that commanders, especially Russian commanders, would use the bayonet charge in place of fire and manoveour to make up for the poor training and equipment of Russian troops. This would lead to excess casualties. Bayonets also made loading much slower, and made the weapon difficult to use in a confined space.
Bayonets haven’t ceased in military use, but from the US Civil War onwards their importance has declined as the lethality and range of other weapon systems has increased. Modern bayonets have become much more utility pieces, serving multiple roles although they are still used to clear determined resistance in close quarter battle situations such as in the Falklands War, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Officers of course would typically be armed with a pistol and sword of some description, which were easier to use in a confined space or a close quarter battle situation. A sword also marked the wielder as a gentleman. Line infantry officers were cursed with the 1796 pattern infantry sword. The blade was straight, thin and flimsy making it deficient in both cutting and thrusting. Prone to bending, it also had a inadequate hand guard. Such a poor quality weapon probably led to unnecessary casualties.
British light cavalry were lucky enough to receive the excellent 1796 light cavalry pattern sword. This beautiful sword 33″ long weighing about 2lb 2oz with it’s strong curved blade was an excellent cutting weapon, and was adopted by the Prussians. Well balanced and extremely durable, it was not a delicate weapon nor was it suitable for fencing but it a wicked cutting and slashing sword, easily capable of cutting off an arm or a leg. Lt Henry Lane carried one at Waterloo. Modified versions were issued to officers in the Rifles and light companies.
Of course no discussion of British swords would be complete without a mention of the heavy cavalry blade loved by Bernard Cornwalls fictional Major Sharpe. It had a straight, single edged blade that was ideally suited to bludgeoning enemies in melee from horse back. At 35″ long weighing about 2lb 2oz it was easily capable of smashing bones and splitting skulls. The hilt guard was perfectly shaped to act as a knuckle duster and troopers used it to smash the enemies teeth and jaw with glee. Even if the enemy survived, they would be disfigured and left in pain their whole lives as the rudimentary medicine of the time didn’t stretch to reconstructive surgery. It was an ugly but very effective weapon. Of course officers could and did purchase non-regulation swords. Usually officers would purchase an ornate dress version of the standard issue sword that was used for special occasions. They would also get a campaign sword that was essentially a very well crafted, but plain version of the standard issue sword. This meant the fine and flashy dress sword wasn’t scratched in a battle, and it made the wielder less of a target. A fancy sword marked a man as worth targeting and killing to try and loot the sword. Officers would usually change into their dress sword for ceremonial occasions. Again this would make Major Sharpe stand out; he carried his campaign sword at all times rather than switching. It is a nice touch. It is isn’t totally out of the realms of possibility either. Officers like Henry Lane had their swords given fancy hilts long after Waterloo but retained the original blades as a mark of their veteran status.
In contrast to the superb infantry, the British cavalry of 1815 was rather undisciplined. When it worked it was world class, but it never really matched the overall long term operational efficiency of the French cavalry. Another quirk of the British cavalry was that the light cavalry tended to ride heavier horses and be heavier men than light cavalry in other armies, meaning that there was sometimes little real difference between the light and heavy cavalry. Dragoons were being phased out in favour of Hussar or Lancer regiments but the process was uneven.
Also, please try to get the idea out of your mind that uniforms were actually uniform. Soldiers, unless on parade, typically carry different bits of kit in different ways. Many soldiers would acquire non-standard items that subtly change their appearance. Riflemen might swap out shakos for caps, backpacks and coats might be looted from the enemy. Dyes on coats would run in the rain, and trousers would end up patched and discoloured. The tailors and cobblers that accompanied any army were valuable men who could stop a man’s boots coming apart, or trousers turning to rags. With supply chains often precarious or ad hoc, losing boots could result in injured feet, incapacity or death.
The other super weapon of the British was the Shrapnel shell. Cannon of the period could fire a variety of ammunition. The standard was solid round shot, perhaps heated during a siege and with a long range. It could cut a man in half and do the same to two of three men standing behind him. There was chain shot for chopping down masts on ships, grape shot that looked like a bunch of grapes in a bag, but burst into fragments as they spat out of the cannon’s mouth. Canister shot was similar to grape but was held in a wooden container. At 400 yards canister would wreck havoc with enemy formations but like grape was made for short range work. It was extensively used and later adopted by the Americans, causing fearsome casualties in the American Civil War. The genius of Colonel Shrapnel was to produce a form of Canister Shot that could be fitted with a timer, allowing it to fire at a long range before air bursting above the target, spraying them with high speed fragments of metal. At long range British gunners could hit targets with round shot, then switch to the more deadly canister style shot at medium range using the Shrapnel shells, then to canister at close range. In contrast, the French were often limited to round shot as their grand batteries either acted at long range or had to be close to the enemy to switch to canister.
The French never really adapted to the British tactics. The marshals learned the brutal efficiency of the British killing machine in defeat after defeat in Spain. When Napoleon at Waterloo proposed a frontal attack on the British line on the ridge, they and their generals must have shivered a little – they were to assault the master of defence on ground of his choosing up a ridge and in the face of some of the most lethally disciplined fire power in the world.
Right, I think that’s probably enough of a background about the British army for now. Most Napoleonic era European armies fought with fairly similar equipment, tailored to their requirements and doctrines, although the rifle and shrapnel shell were limited to the British in the main.
If it seems like I’m spending a lot time on the Waterloo campaign, it is because it really is important to the Victorian period. Some of the key actors of the era were shaped by their experiences during the campaign. Not just Wellington, but a number of prominent Victorians were heavily influenced by the Napoleonic conflicts. Sir Edward Hodge was born in 1810 and lost his father in 1815. As you now know he will be involved in the key conflicts of the Crimea. Who knows how his life would have turned out if his father had survived Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Perhaps his son would have been sent into another career entirely. Harry Smith, was a dashing Peninsular hero who rescued and later married the lovely Juana María during the siege of Badajoz. He later became the Sir Harry Smith who fought in India in the 1840’s and in South Africa, becoming a colonial governor. His beloved wife had a number of towns named after her more formal name “Ladysmith” A much less successful British Officer Lord Raglan was a junior staff officer and military secretary to Wellington at Waterloo, where he lost an arm. Colin Campbell was learning his trade and receiving wounds in the Peninsular campaigns long before he became the famous & successful Victorian general. The Napoleonic Wars cast a long shadow indeed. More than that though, the post Waterloo political manoeuvres would draw the map of Europe for nearly 100 years and Europe was about to become the dominant area of the world in a way scarcely imagined even before.
- This is the remastered version of episode 2. When I started podcasting, I was very much still learning about sound quality and editing. Looking back, I slightly shudder at how the early shows sounded. I have rerecorded some of the early shows to give new listeners a better experience. Content wise, they are pretty much the same, with some tweaks for clarity.
- What price is too high for ambition? It can be a difficult question. Ambition has driven us throughout history. It can be what makes a person strive for aN education or a job. It has built monuments and civilisations. But it has limits. How far is too ambitious? Does it depend on who you are? Or are the consequences more important? Is it ok to let your ambition kill people? After all just becoming a President or a Prime Minister or a Tsar means you will end up having people killed. Someone has to do those jobs though. If you exclude one person for being too ambitious, how do you know that the next person will be up to the job? Isn’t a certain amount of ruthlessness and ambition exactly what’s needed in a great leader? What should people with incredible talents and ambition do? If you are an Alexander or a Caesar, that ambition is going to kill people, but you know that you are cut from another cloth to most people. Because if people like Alexander or Caesar aren’t ambitious, then how does civilisation move and evolve? Without Caesar, maybe Rome stays a Mediterranean power, and there is no modern France or Spain or Britain. There’s no Constantinople; perhaps even no Crusades or contact with China – so maybe the world never moves past the technology, social structures and populations of 1st century AD. Imagine a world that doesn’t change from then and try to imaging what that’s like.
- The Victorians absolutely had to deal with this ambition problem though. It wasn’t an academic issue for them. Cecil Rhodes, Charles Napier, “Chinese” Gordon, Abraham Lincoln were all people who had to put a large dose of ambition and a willingness to see people dead to achieve what they thought were larger goals. Throughout our period, the British Victorians were building an Empire as were the French, Prussians, Russians and North Americans. That often leads to some very uncomfortable questions, about who is building it and why. That leads me to another trait that these great men often have, and that’s “they have a self confidence you could bend iron bars around.” That’s going to be a key to understanding the Age of the Victorians right there, the almost insane self confidence we’re going to see again and again. Searching for the source of the Nile, or the Northern Passage, journeying up the Amazon or taking a handful of soldiers and scraped together forces against enormous odds in far flung parts of the world.
- Think about what’s the biggest gamble you’ve ever taken? Have you ever staked it all on a risky throw of the dice? When most of us say we have taken a gamble, we usually mean something mundane like trying a new restaurant or seeing a film or going on a date. Even the big stuff is usually fairly small in the grand scheme of things. Quitting a job, starting a business or moving house is rarely going to kill you, and even if it does that is limited to you and your family. What I think we all have in common is a sense of fear of the unknown and that moment where the urge to jump on a chance becomes unbearable.
- In 1815, in what has to be one of the great gambles in world history, Napoleon left Elba with a handful of men to reconquer France. Now I can’t really imagine how Napoleon felt when he left Elba on 26 February 1815 and landed in France on 01 March 1815. I’m not going through the whole history of Napoleon. I’m going to assume that you know something about his rise from provincial nobody to revolutionary general to 1st Consul to Emperor of the French and master of Europe to exile on Elba. His return started what was known as the 100 days. With just 1,000 men, he invaded France. That has to be one of the most utterly self confident things anyone has ever done. Still, he was not leaping in the dark. The returned Monarchy had quickly wasted any goodwill it had, and it had treated the officers and men of the old Grand Armee disgracefully. The exiled aristocratic class had been banished from France after the French revolution, but had returned and begun the usual aristocratic practice of extraction, rents and despotism. The old army and people of France were ready for help to fight the tyranny of monarchy, but people’s sentiments were mixed and many just feared the chaos of a new war.
- Napoleon was like a lot of the “great men” of history – he had a belief in fortune and some greater destiny. He felt he was marked out for greatness. And if you look at him, you can see why. He was unquestionably an intellectual genius who was one of the greatest military commanders in history. At his best he was nearly incomparable. He regularly appears in the top 5 military leaders in history. He also possessed a highly scientific mind, and a formidable legal brain. It is worth remembering as we evaluate him and Waterloo, that he was also the sole ruler of France at the time, responsible for all civil affairs in her borders and colonies. He also had to deal with all international diplomatic relations, re-order the constitution and economy, re-form and re-supply the military then at the same time fight a campaign against an international coalition determined to use the resources of their combined nations to destroy him. I think you will come to see that the surprise is not that Wellington with Prussian help beat Napoleon, but how amazing it is he came so close to actually winning.
- I’m going to quickly digress as I think we should put the issue of Napoleon’s height to rest. He was 5ft 4 inches in French Imperial measure, which was 5ft 7 inches in British Imperial measure. That made him of average height for France in the early 1800’s. A number of modern political leaders are also the same height. For comparison, the Duke of Wellington was probably around 5ft 10inches. A lot of the reason for the confusion was highly effective British propaganda that made him out to be small, physically weak, combined with the mistranslation over the height from French measure to British Imperial. Later on Tolstoy (who loathed Napoleon) called him [quote] “the undersized Napoleon” [end quote] as well as other unflattering descriptions. Dr Alfred Adler, a psychiatrist first proposed the Napoleon complex to describe short men over compensating with aggression, which has set the myth in stone.
- Now let’s have a look at France on the eve of Waterloo campaign in the year 1815. She was without a doubt the great power of the age. She had a large population and was agriculturally rich. Like Britain she was a predominantly agrarian society with the bulk of the population involved in farming or labour, but was behind in industrial terms. Unlike Britain, France was not a strong naval power. A focus on continental strategy, rather than blue water power projection combined with a series of naval defeats meant France was unable to challenge British naval dominance, which was absolute in 1815. This had a huge impact on French strategy. When naval historians and strategists talk about navies, they will try and define the role of the navy. Navies can be vital in securing trade routes, for costal defence, troop transport, commerce raiding and if capable of long campaigns far from the home base, they can be called Blue Water navies. That means they can project power whether military, commercial or diplomatic, a long way from the home country. That can make them tremendously powerful. The down side is that they are immensely expensive. Just putting a fleet to sea costs more than money; it requires materials to build the ship, often these are hard to obtain. The British had to import timber from the Baltic. It’s not just materials to build though, fleets need men and supplies. They need training, secure harbours, support vessels, and as Mahon noted in his immensely influential work “The Impact of Sea Power on History”, a huge merchant marine fleet to give depth. They also need an arms industry tailored to their specific needs that can keep replacement weapons and ammunition flowing. The upside of this is that if you have a powerful navy, you can do a lot of things that perhaps your opponent can’t. In 1815, Britain had that navy and Napoleon didn’t. Not only did Britain have that fleet, but it could do the lot. It was a blue water fleet and could strike anywhere, but it could also protect commerce, transport troops, raid enemy merchants and blockade enemy ports. Lack of a blue water navy had condemned France to a continental strategy, and they missed the opportunity to assume a dominant role in controlling the Mediterranean. The British fleet allowed a global network of trade, colonisation and slavery that brought immense wealth and power to Britain. This in turn meant the French couldn’t control trade routes or prevent British troop movements by sea. As soon as Napoleon returned, almost the first thing that happened was that the Royal Navy swept the sea’s around France clean of French shipping. Getting supplies and allies from overseas would be an immensely difficult task for the Emperor.
- Napoleon was in a difficult position politically when he returned to France. He instituted important reforms, and established a civilian government. He was the Emperor, but his position was precarious, so the civilian authorities had considerable power. Napoleon had to topple the monarchy and set up a new government, then fend off the various invasions. That was not the time for full on ballot box democracy. It is a mistake to view him as a dictator at this stage though. He actually had somewhat less power than he did before his previous exile, and would rely more heavily on the civilian government.
- Napoleon in 1815 was not the same Napoleon who had repeatedly thrashed the powers of Europe in 1800-1806. He was older, fatter, slower and less energetic but the Emperor was not to be taken lightly. He was still renowned as a master of war with a glittering list of victories that went from Spain to Russia, from Italy to the Baltic and from the Danube to the Nile. He was not invincible as the disasters in Spain and Russia had proved, but his final defence of France in 1814 had been brilliant. Napoleon in 1815 had a serious problem though. He needed one thing above all else and that was time. He needed it because the powers at the congress of Vienna had declared him an outlaw and would form the 7th Coalition. He had put out peace feelers and appeared to be genuinely willing to work within an international framework. The war was not the Old World of Europe against France, it was against Napoleon. He needed time to get his veteran soldiers to return to the colours. He needed time to levee new recruits. He needed time to re-write the constitution, and completely restructure the economy, he needed time to get his Marshals to return to him and he needed the former prisoners of war who had been returned to be re-enlisted. That was a real problem for Napoleon because he knew that time was a double edged sword. The longer he waited, the more troops and supplies his enemies could put in the field against him.
- In an unfortunate stroke of timing, Napoleon had returned to France during the international Congress of Vienna. The former combatants had gathered to create what they claimed would be a new European order of peace and security. It would also just happen to re-establish the old aristocracies, especially in France because hey we’ve seen what happens when you put the people in charge, they actually want to try to run things and distribute land fairly, have an even handed legal system, abolish privilege and all kinds of non-sense. Luckily we can fix all that and oh crap Napoleon is back. Didn’t we just get rid of him?
- So the representatives of the European powers assembled at the Congress of Vienna issued a declaration outlawing Napoleon and agreed to place armies of at least 150,000 each in the field to oppose him.
- The Coalition Powers agreed on a coordinated invasion of France to start on 1 July 1815.
- Britain and Prussia would assemble their armies in Belgium (a territory recently acquired by United Kingdom of the Netherlands)
- The Russians would assemble an army and advance through Germany towards the French frontier
- The Austrians would assemble two armies and advance on the French frontiers
- The troops of Bavaria, Baden, Wurtemberg, and Hesse, would assemble their troops on the upper Rhine under the command of the Prince of Württemberg.
- Now try to imagine that you suddenly have to arrange to defend an entire country after you’ve just overthrown the government. You have to cover the frontiers, plan a strategy and set the victory conditions you want to achieve, create an organisational structure, move troops by horse, cart and foot, and work using only hand drawn maps. If you lose, it might cost you your life and your country could be conquered or broken up. A lot of us struggle to organise a routine office move, so try to conceive of the scale of the task that Napoleon has here. When he took over government on 19 March 1815 from the debased and despised Louise XVIII he inherited the standing army of just 46,000 combat ready troops. By the end of May Napoleon had managed to raise this to 198,000. Think about how difficult some companies find it to recruit even a handful of low level staff and now scale it up to the massive numbers Napoleon needed. He needed boots, uniforms, horses, reserves, gun limbers, carriages, bandages, food, muskets, ammunition, maps and a huge array of other supplies. To give you another idea of the scale of the challenge, remember that Napoleon didn’t just have to defeat the British & Prussians in Belgium. He had to prepare for an expected Spanish invasion, an expected British naval landing in Southern France, guard the Swiss and Italian borders and the frontiers of the Prussian/German states. The Allies could potentially field 989,000 men against him.
- I think you are beginning to see that far from some of the Victorian myths of Wellington “The Iron Duke” thrashing Napoleon at Waterloo and stopping the tyrant, in fact it was highly unlikely that Napoleon would succeed.
- Napoleon acted with characteristic brilliance. He carefully formed armies and smaller corps to cover the various trouble spots. He had a choice between a protracted defence of France, or to go on the offensive and try to defeat his enemies in detail before they could join up against him. By taking the fight to them he hoped that significant military victories would force them to the peace table. It is important to understand that everything Napoleon now did was to try to turn military advantages into diplomatic victories. It was a huge gamble though. It had failed utterly in Russia where he won battle after battle but his enemy simply refused to negotiate. Now he was fighting an enemy that wanted to destroy him personally. Some of the Coalition, such as Blucher, hated him and wanted him dead. They would no more negotiate with him than the Allies in WW2 would have negotiated with Hitler. It was all or nothing for most of them.
- Napoleon made things more difficult by making some fateful decisions. Ones that would perhaps doom him. He appointed one of best Marshals, Louis-Nicolas Davout, as his Minister of War. He was perfect for the role, both talented and loyal. His upright character and stern discipline meant he was utterly reliable. He was the right man for the job, but his presence as a marshal in the Waterloo campaign could very well have changed the course of history. Davout was a supreme military commander, arguably as good as Napoleon at the tactical, operational and theatre levels. His army corp was always the most disciplined and well supplied of the French forces.
- Had Davout commanded the field at Waterloo instead of Ney, there would have been no blunders with unsupported cavalry charges, nor would the infantry have been allowed to plod in so many of their attacks. If he had commanded at Quatre Bras instead of Ney, he would have understood why the battle was so important and the need for decisive action – something seemingly absent from Ney’s rather slow actions of the day. It is one of the great might have been’s that Napoleonic history buffs have discussed since then.
- The other killer mistake for Napoleon was appointing Joseph Fouché as his Police Minister and de facto spymaster, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to Foreign Minister. Both were ruthless, brilliant and utterly self centred with no scruples. Both had betrayed masters before with promises that they were acting in the best interest of France. Both were only absolutely loyal to themselves. Fouche quickly made himself indispensible, but Napoleon both mistrusted and somewhat feared him.
- On the upside Napoleon had many of his veterans. He had some capable marshals, who if not of the calibre of Massena, Lannes or Berthier his much missed Chief of Staff, at least included the Bravest of the Brave Marshal Ney and the formidable Marshal Soult. The Marshals are a fascinating group. Some of them had amazing careers. Indeed if not for Napoleon, some of them would be historical super stars but with the Emperor present they were always outshone. Soult’s position was especially interesting because rather than being given a corp or army command, he was appointed to the role of Chief of Staff. It was a role he was highly unsuited to, despite his strong performance in the Peninsular Wars. He was not tactically brilliant in the field like Napoleon or Massena but he was disciplined, courageous, a capable field commander, and a great organiser of armies. He had won a number of notable victories and had been instrumental in some of the Emperor’s successes. He had even had experience as a Chief of Staff in Spain. As an army commander he was highly respected by no lesser general than Wellington himself. In 1838 he represented King Louis-Philippe at the coronation of Queen Victoria. By then he was Duke of Dalmatia, and was pleased to hear cries of Vive Soult from the London crowd. He met his old adversary Wellington, who is said to have seized his arms and said “I have you at last”, a tribute to his difficulties fighting the wily Marshal in Spain. The evidence for this is a little slim, and might be from a fanciful painting, where the words are uttered by General Hill, not Wellington. Sadly, unlike Breathier, Soult struggled to translate Napoleon’s high level instructions into concrete detailed orders. Poor staff work dogged the campaign. Where Berthier ran a disciplined, efficient staff at a cracking pace, Soult was more leisurely. Berthier would send 3 messengers with the same order to ensure it reached the intended recipient, whereas Soult would only send one. It was also remarked that Soult used low quality horses and officers for the staff. It is unlikely that Berthier would have allowed the debacles of Grouchy or D’Erlon wandering aimlessly at crucial moments.
- Marshal Ney was another interesting choice. In his prime before 1812 he had been a fierce fighter and an exceptional winner of battles. After 1812 and the epic retreat from Moscow where he earned the title “Bravest of the Brave” he was not quite the same fiery genius. Napoleon writing with some hindsight said of him [QUOTE] “Admirable for his bravery and stubbornness in retreats, he was good when it came to leading 10,000 men, but with a larger force he was a real fool. Always first under fire, he forgot about troops who were not under his immediate command” [END QUOTE]
- When Napoleon marched north to confront the Coalition on 12th June, Marshal Ney went as a civilian and in disgrace having betrayed his Emperor then the Bourbons. He had been enticed by the Emperor to defect, and the troops cheered the decision of the beloved marshal to join the Emperor. Certainly it is likely that Napoleon had one eye on public opinion when he recalled Ney. Still he never really brought Ney back into the inner circle. Napoleon probably never forgave Ney for leading the marshals revolt that originally deposed the him.
- Ney was eventually summoned to join the Emperor on campaign. It was at short notice and Ney departed France with only 1 staff officer. Finally at a meeting with the Emperor on the road to Charleroi on the 15 June 1815, he was suddenly appointed to command of the 1st & 2nd Army Corp with 2 regiments of light cavalry of the Imperial Guard and 8 regiments of Kellerman’s heavy cavalry. This gave him a command of 50,000 men and 72 guns. These figures would not stay constant as brigades and divisions were abruptly shifted to command area’s as necessity dictated. It was a curiously spur of the moment appointment at a crucial moment in the campaign. Ney did not distinguish himself in terms of tactical or strategic ability on during the Waterloo campaign but his bravery was all that could be asked of a hero of France. Sadly, we will see it was an order of Ney’s to D’Erlon that probably doomed Napoleon before Waterloo was even fought. In fairness to Ney, being given command of an army on the march on the eve of a critical battle is a hellish task. He would have had to find out where, on the confused roads of Belgium, his troops, officers and supplies were, meet his officers, take control of them and begin his planning. He had to do this with horse messengers and hand written notes. I think for all his faults, history is often unkind to Ney. He was placed in a very difficult situation and the sight of Ney at the end of Waterloo is a display of courage almost unequalled on either side.
- The last of the Marshals was Grouchy. He was a brave cavalry leader who had impressed Napoleon at Wagram but had remained an overlooked general. His unexpected elevation to Marshal caused immense jealousy from his subordinates. Grouchy had never been good at getting the best from his officers and this appointment inflamed the hatred that Vandamme already had for his superior. Worse he had no experience of leading infantry or combined forces and his main achievements had always been under the command of the more capable Marshals like Davout or Lannes or when he was directly under the control of the Emperor.
- The whole myth of the disciplined British against the brave, dashing but undisciplined French became a Victorian myth but one that perhaps contained a good deal of truth. Certainly there are accounts that suggest that most troops and junior officers were fanatically loyal to the Emperor. A good number were veterans or former POW’s who were thirsty for revenge, many the victims of torture in captivity. The senior officers were more conflicted and many feared that the Emperors return meant France was destined for yet more wars. I’m not sure if they considered that actually committing wholeheartedly to Napoleon was the best chance for the French Republic to not just survive but thrive. The senior generals and marshals were in some ways disliked. They were seen as old and disloyal. Men who had owed everything to Napoleon yet had betrayed him. The return of Ney and Soult to the cause was welcome, but the army was not exactly a cohesive force. It has been described by many historians as being like a fine but brittle sword. It was the best army Napoleon had commanded for years and was filled with veterans, but at the same time it didn’t have the deep discipline and trust. It hadn’t had much time to practise together to develop real bonds of trust between the men, and the essential small unit cohesion that helps troops know what their fellows are going to do without having to be told.
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- The French troops were mainly line infantry. The typical French Infantryman was armed with a smoothbore, muzzle loading musket and carrying a knapsack.
- Muskets are accurate at up to around 50 yards, but could still kill at up to 300 yards. A good shooter with a musket could reliably hit a man sized target at 50 yards, but at 300 yards aiming was pointless. Soldiers simply fired into the mass of enemy on the principle it would hit something. Crucially, the musket was reliable, relatively quick firing, easy to produce in large numbers, and study enough to use in hand to hand. A blow from the butt of a musket could crush a man’s skull. Muskets were primitive compared to the highly accurate rifles and machine guns of later armies, but as historian John Elting wrote: [QUOTE] “In their own time they made and broke empires; they won, and nailed down, the independence of the USA. Together with the Roman short sword and the Mongol composite bow, they rank as the greatest man-killers of all-history.” [QUOTE]
- Most French infantry carried the ‘Charleville’ musket (fusil d’infanterie) model 1777 (AN IX), with overall length 151.5 cm, (barrel length 114 cm), and a triangular bayonet. It fired a French musket ball of .69 calibre using a flint lock. It was so popular that it was widely copied. The French version 1766 was so highly regarded it was the basis of the iconic American Springfield Musket 1795. Ammunition was cast to an approximate size, and there were no interchangable machine parts so standardise replacement parts weren’t typically available, so repairs needed an experienced gun smith. The quality of gun powder was variable and Napoleon would refuse to release gun powder producers for active service as their work was too valuable.
- The flintlock musket revolutionised warfare. They were powerful, large calibre weapons, and getting hit by one was almost certain to put a man down, even if he later recovered. They easily shattered bones, and shredded organs as the soft lead balls deformed on impact.
- To increase accuracy, mass volleys were used on the principle that quantity of fire would make up for low quality accuracy. This created a lethal kill zone at around the 50-150 yard mark and a danger zone at up to 300 yards, but it required intense discipline. Debates ranged in military circles about the best formations. Napoleon and the French adapted many of the best practices from other nations and perfected them.
- Lack of production facilities for muskets and ammunition limited the supplies. Training was also of increasingly low quality. In contrast inBritain, the industrial revolution and imperial trade networks meant plenty of ammunition was available. British troops trained for far long.
- There is a misconception that the French fought in large columns, but this is not true. The French used the 2 ranks formation at a tactical level at close range. At a larger level the various lines would combined to form the Attack Column. The attack column is not the same as the long deep marching column. It was more a rectangle formed by the individual companies of soldiers not a solid mass of men marching in a deep mass like you see on a parade ground or on the road.
- The columns were supported by screens of skirmishing troops that picked off enemy officers and covered the advance. A small volley might be fired on the way in and attacks were usually supported by heavy artillery fire and cavalry wherever possible, with columns trying to cross the lethal fire zones created by the lines of enemy troops.
- The precise formations varied throughout the Napoleonic wars. The highly trained French army of 1805 was able to adopt various formations that were beyond the abilities of the army of 1815, which didn’t. the training to adopt complex formations. Losses of high quality officers and NCO only exacerbated the problem. As the French infantry abilities decayed, the army relied more heavily on artillery and cavalry.
- Napoleon especially loved the heavy cavalry. Big men, on big horses with full cuirasses and heavy straight swords. A well timed charge by the Cuirassiers could smash enemy lines or shatter enemy counter attacks. He was careful that his Marshals and Generals ensured that the Heavy Cavalry didn’t charge unsupported by infantry or artillery. Napoleon developed the concentrated heavy cavalry doctrine and their use as a breakthrough force throughout his career, but they were supposed to be integrated rather than charging unsupported.
- The French also used various light cavalry, dragoons and lancers. Lancers were especially feared as they could under the right conditions reach past the bayonet wall of an infantry square and spear the men, especially if it was too wet to fire muskets. The British military were so impressed with the lancers that they adopted them for cavalry, although later reports on combat effectiveness in India were mixed. Dragoons would sometimes find themselves burdened with carbines and bayonets, whilst some light infantry officers and dragoons would be given rifle carbines.
- The artillery, referred to as guns, were the key to French tactics, as Napoleon said [QUOTE]Great battles are won with artillery. [END QUOTE] Yet a persistent issue for the French was lack of quality artillery pieces with plenty of ammunition.
- The French often requisitioned older guns for costal defence and Napoleon focused obsessively on his artillery. He and senior officers had done a vast amount of work to standardise and improve the artillery to make it world class. It suffered dreadfully in Russia and never truly recovered. It seems clear on reflection that British Artillery was of a consistently higher manufacturing quality, but sometime less effective.
- Uniforms varied widely depending on the time period, the whims of the local colonel, the vagaries of supplies and the interference of various re-organisations. Campaign clothing was often tattered and dirty, a world away from the formal regulation clothing worn on parade. The organisation of the Imperial Guard was kept separate and it acted in some ways as an independent army which drew higher and pay and was fed the best rations.
- The combined discipline of the French army, the battlefield brilliance of the fighting marshals, and the genius of Napoleon in bringing the maximum force against a limited point of his enemies’ lines and shattering them had allowed the French to become in 1805 the finest army in the world. The Emperor focused on fast movement, pinning attacks to the front whilst attacking the flanks and the rear and the ability to move his army corps in a dispersed fashion only to quickly converge at key points. Above all the Emperor was adaptable, expertly selecting the right tools and formations for whatever challenge was presented. He preferred an offensive campaign to allow him to deal early knockout blows against his enemies, overcoming the logistical shortcomings of the French field armies by winning the war before supplies became an issue. Too often the French army relied on the brilliant leadership insane bravery to make up for serious organisational difficulties.
- Whatever the short comings, Napoleon had to fight. He would teach the coalition how the Master waged war. He had achieved the impossible by seizing the throne and assembling the armies. Now he moved so fast that the coalition still believed he was in France, when he was actually marching to divide the British and Prussians. His goal was to destroy the Prussians, then the British before they had time to react. He nearly succeeded.
- Before I go though, I hope you are getting a sense of how tough and brave and powerful the French Army under Napoleon really was. The French have been the butt of some appalling jokes, and US President Bush referred to them as “Cheese eating surrender monkeys” This is a gross slur on an extremely brave and hard fighting nation. The French under Napoleon routinely displayed incredible courage under fire, and conquered most of Europe. The repeated charges of the British squares by the French Heavy Cavalry alone was valour of the highest order, and the British respected them immensely for it. Throughout much of her history France was regarded as the pre-eminent military and social power in Europe. Join me next time to find out about the famous British army of 1815 under the legendary Duke of Wellington.
If you’re a new listener I’d recommend you listen to our intro cast just so you know what to expect.
I think that one of the first things to address is who or what is a Victorian? What is meant by the term? Is it just the people and things who lived between her birth and death? Was it just the period of her reign? Were Victorians just the people of the United Kingdom or were all imperial subjects Victorian? Does the term refer more to a period? After all, the influence of the British Victorians was felt globally, even in countries that weren’t part of the Empire. Is it just the people or do the art and artefacts count too?
It is actually a difficult thing to pin down. This podcast is about the Age of the Victorians. It is not the History of Victorian Britain. My brush is a lot broader. Luckily I’m not alone in this. Some historians have dated the start of the Victorian era as much earlier and ending much later. Historian G Price for instance argues that there wasn’t really an industrial revolution or a Victorian age. He argues that we should see the whole of the activity in Britain as a spectrum of continuity. In many ways this is obviously right; People didn’t wake up one day and say “Great the middle ages have now ended and I can stop living in a time of religious based superstition and poverty and move into the Renaissance era of increased religious and artistic freedom combined with improved social conditions.” People’s experiences are rooted in individual, but I think sometimes that there really is a sense of the end of an era and the start of the new one. The second world war really did draw a hard line between one era and another for example, as did the Mongol conquests.
From the podcast point of view we’re going to take the Victorian era as really starting at Waterloo. Waterloo seems a convenient bookend to the end of the Enlightenment and the start of the attitudes that really define the Age of the Victorians. It is easy to think of the Duke of Wellington as only the man who fought Napoleon at Waterloo, but he was also a Prime Minister shortly before Victoria became Queen, and some of his political actions would have significant influence on the early Victorian period, most especially his immense influence on the Victorian British Army. His organisation of the British Army in the Peninsular and at Waterloo set the pattern for the British Army till well into the C19th. It is thanks to his military legacy that Britain remained wedded to muzzle loading muskets, bright red coats and cavalry far past the point where they were militarily useful. Palmerston, Gladstone and Disraeli were all born before Waterloo but became key political figures in Victoria’s reign. Besides Queen Victoria herself was born in 1819, only four years after Waterloo so I haven’t started too early. It does mean we will sweep in the tail end of the regency and the reign of William IV but I think it is essential in understanding where the spirit of the age really evolved from.
There is another more important reason. After Waterloo there was a complex series of negotiations that set up the European order for the next 30 odd years. Without a background of where Europe stood before the settlement and what the settlement was designed to achieve, we won’t be able to understand the constant tension between the status quo seeking regimes in Europe, and the rising movements for reform in the United Kingdom and across Europe that eventually led to the year of revolutions of 1848.
When does the Age of Victoria really end? The Victorians didn’t just drop dead with Victoria. A person born in 1899 could claim to be a Victorian and live Again, the podcast will treat it as the time when the attitudes really died. Thatcher might have summoned the ghost of Victorian values in her speeches but she was not the product of the Victorian era. Instead I believe that the Victorian age died when the last great Victorian army led by the last great Victorian vintage generals died in the battle of the Somme. The great public school system, the emphasis on glory and dying for the country and the Empire and the playing fields of Eton really died on that battle field. Afterwards the realism of a post Victorian industrial world ushered in the poetry of the hard bitten cynics.
Now that’s fine as far as the podcast goes – it’ll give us a lot of time to cover in the episodes. I’m hoping that you’ll find that the Victorians packed more into a century than most countries have managed in an entire history. Unfortunately it doesn’t really fully answer the question of who the Victorians were.
Right then, you can close your eyes and see what a Victorian looks like to you. Chances are you might see Dick Van Dyke and Mary Poppins. Or perhaps you can see Iron Man Robert Downey Jnr as the ultimate Sherlock Holmes. Maybe you can see Mr Darcy. Perhaps the sad faced Oliver Twist springs to mind or the Christmas card perfect Victorian Family round the Christmas Tree? Maybe you see the downtrodden miners and workers in the factories in Lancashire? Quick note though, if you go strictly on dates you need to banish Mr Darcy from your imagination. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 so he is not actually a Victorian at all, though he would have lived into the Victorian era and his children would have been shaped by his attitude. Likewise on a strictly date format, the Mary Poppins film is set in 1910 and is Edwardian.
All of these images have a place, well except Dick Van Dykes accent. They are shades and reflections of the age. Even the most accurate images would only be a snap shot of a place and time. How a person dressed and behaved in 1840 depended very much on where they lived, social class, wealth, occupation but also the thousands of hidden individual quirks that make people chose this colour or style over another. A provincial solicitor in 1840 might look rather strange and old fashioned to his London counterpart in 1895. An American businessman might well have shared similar social attitudes to his London counterpart, and they may have had more in common with each other than with the poor factory workers they employed – which might hold true in today’s world too.
The artefacts and buildings of the Victorians have often outlasted their creators and the originally envisaged lifespan. That means if some building is particularly interesting, I’ll probably finish its story off if feasible.
What I’m trying to get across to you though is that there isn’t really a bright line “before this someone or something isn’t Victorian, and after is.” History can be categorised and tagged to make it easier to study but the reality was a lot more messy. There was more of a growing recognition that the country and the world was changing and a new age was under way.
For now I think we will have to accept that who or what is Victorian will remain in the eye of the beholder. So let’s start our journey. I thought it might help if we started with a mini sketch of the UK and Europe in the year 1815.
Important note to near in mind. The UK is different from Britain. Britain is the island containing England, Wales and Scotland. The Crowns of England & Scotland merged in 1707 to form Great Britain when the treaties of Union were ratified by Parliament in the Act of Union 1707. The United Kingdom was formed in 1801 when the Kingdom of Ireland merged with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form – wait for it, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This included the whole of Ireland. It wasn’t until after WW1 that Ireland succeeded from the United Kingdom and the name changed to the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. That’s right, in our podcast the UK will have only been in existence for a very short period of time but it included the whole of Ireland. The Victorian age was as much a search for a unified national identity as anything else. National identity politics in the UK was, and still is, a complex issue as the 2016 EU membership referendum shows.
I will be talking about Scotland, Wales and Ireland a lot. We will need to bury the myth that Scotland was somehow a conquered country or junior partner in things and that any sins of Empire were uniquely English. The Scots were a huge, integral part of the Victorian age and so I won’t treat them as a “Scotcast special” because they are too central to the story as are the Irish and Welsh.
For those listeners who aren’t familiar with the UK, it is worth a quick look at a map of Europe. It can best be described as a small semi boot shaped blob with a smaller blob on one side, just north of France and what is now Belgium. The south coast of Britain touches what the English refer to as the English Channel. This stretch of sea separates the UK from Europe both physically and mentally. It also provides the main southern sea route from the North coasts of Europe to the Atlantic. A ship from the Baltic States, Russia, Central North Europe and the Low Countries can only access the Atlantic via the channel or by going up the North Sea and around the top of Scotland & Ireland. This position means that Britain is ideally placed to exercise strategic control over European trade, provided she has naval supremacy at the time in question. Remember though the map you look at now is very different from what you would have seen in 1815. Some of the great towns and cities of the United Kingdom would have appeared radically different. For example, Newport in Wales was a small town with a population of around 1,000 people in 1815. The locals main occupations were agriculture, salmon fishing at the mouth of the Usk, and work on the wharves, where a few ships put in from time to time. By 1900 coal, canals and Irish immigration had transformed it into one of the largest ports in Wales with a population of over 67,000. Similar transformation would occur across the whole of the UK and Europe.
The position of Ireland next to Britain made Ireland a site of strategic military importance as it was an easy staging post for an attack on Britain. Ireland had a long, complex history with Britain and the English. There were many Irish who loathed the English Crown & Government in particular and blamed them for local exploitation by Ango-Irish landowners, but there was also exploitation by absentee Scottish Landlords. There were also many Irish who were passionately pro-British.
Without the Irish, Welsh and the Scots, the British Empire and the United Kingdom absolutely could not have emerged as the world dominating force that it did.
The low countries would also be a key strategic concern for successive British governments. Napoleon deemed Antwerp, [quote]”a pistol pointed at the heart of England,”[end quote]. Antwerp had the potential to have a large naval base built by Napoleon to support an invasion. The distance from Antwerp the Southern Coast is Britain is very short, but the British also constantly fretted about naval bases on the North European shoreline.
Since the gifting of Gibraltar to the UK in perpetuity, the UK has also maintained a strategic grip on the Mediterranean sea routes as well. In the Victorian period, this grip on access to the Atlantic and Mediterranean is key to understanding Britain’s growth, her Empire and her international relations. In many ways you will come to see how the Victorians in Britain were defined by the geography and the constraints of being the premier naval power. The position of Britain outside Europe raised a paradox. On the one hand the nature of being an island made the prospect of a land invasion unlikely and allowed the British to maintain a small standing army relatively free from the risk of invasion. But this depended utterly on the British maintaining complete control of the home waters. If an enemy, or worse still, a coalition of enemies could seize control of the home waters, or if the British allowed their fleet to weaken and decay as they did during the Anglo-Dutch wars, then the protective seas around Britain would become highways for the enemy. It would give enemies almost unlimited freedom to choose when and where to attack with impunity. Britain simply couldn’t compete with European coalitions in terms of man power if the battles were fought on British soil.
The upshot of this is that for almost the entire of Britain’s post medieval history her entire strategic and diplomatic approach was bent to maintaining naval supremacy and preventing any one European power from dominating the balance of power in Europe, or forming a grand coalition against her. It is something to bear in mind as we discuss “Perfidious Albion” and some of the twists and turns of Victorian diplomacy and international relations. The incessant meddling that Britain often engaged in was often necessitated by this overarching imperative.
Britain is also extremely well placed in terms of climate. Now I know that some of you are probably thinking “Really? I thought it rained all the time” Well yes, it rains a lot. I admit that I’ve often had to have an umbrella at my summer BBQ but honestly it really doesn’t rain all the time. In fact, Britain has a mild Atlantic climate due to the North Atlantic Current. Considering how far north Britain actually is, we should have had Reindeer pulling sleds full of Anglo Saxon warriors rather enjoying a climate that made agriculture and commerce some of the most productive in the world.
It is worth bearing in mind that Britain has a wide range of weather and climate. Southern England is probably the warmest and driest part of Britain. Overall the UK has an immense range of variety in weather depending on location, local geography and the influence of Atlantic, Artic or European weather fronts. To my astonishment when I was researching this podcast, I found that the UK has the highest number of Tornado’s relative to its land area of any country in the world. On 28 December 1879 for instance a Tornado derailed a passenger train from the Tay Bridge, causing it to plunge into the Tay Estuary killing 74 people.
We will have to account for the fact British climate has changed dramatically over time. Britain, like much of Europe was still coming out of what is known as the “Little Ice Age” until around the 1850’s. This means that food production has been heavily impacted by changing climate. Some of those picture postcard White Victorian Christmas’s you may have pictured might well have been the result of the ending of the Little Ice Age. Rapid industrialisation was also beginning to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, kick starting the process of man made global warming.
England has a range of environments from chalk grasslands to rolling farm lands to woodland, to the more valleyed South West down into the moors and bogs of Dartmoor and the rough Cornish coast. The north of the country also has excellent farmland, more valleys and gorges, a rougher climate with certain area’s more prone to storms. The centre of the country has a spine of mountains running up it and no part is very far from the sea. Wales and Scotland have their own unique climate and geography that we will look at when we look at the Highland Clearance and their Great Famine. We will also look at the climate and geography of Ireland in more detail when we get to what is known as the “Potato Famine” in Ireland.
At the beginning of our period, the climate and geography had much more of a day to day impact than it does today. The fastest methods of travel were the horse or a boat. The main forms of power were human muscle, the horse, ox or water mill. Troop movement especially remained tied to the rate of march of the infantry and is little different from Roman times.
The bulk of jobs were done by human labour with watermills and windmills being a useful supplement for key tasks especially grinding corn and wheat. The principle occupations were agrarian. There were some towns beginning to industrialise. The consumer market barely existed. Most, but not all, shops were local although Wedgewood china was beginning to create an international mass market. Britain could clearly be seen as at the start of its industrial revolution.
Heavy goods were still moved by horse, cart, barge or ship. The fastest messages were still sent by fast horse or by semaphore. There has been some historical debate about whether some messages were flashed like a Heliograph but I can’t find an accepted verified use of this method of communication before the invention of the Mance Heliograph in the 1869 by Sir Henry Christopher Mance.
Clothes were mainly from natural sources, and were not very well weatherproofed. Staying warm and dry was a key challenge in northern climates, especially at sea. Staying cool in warmer climates was difficult without modern cooling clothes and plentiful water. Add to this the fact that clothing was very fashion dependent and for the poor heavily price constrained. The lack of suitable clothing could be lethal in some circumstances, not just on difficult expeditions, but in day to day life.
This was the world of 1815. It was rooted in the local. It was mostly agrarian. The industrial revolution was barely under way, but some towns like Manchester were noticing the first massive changes of industrialisation and expansion. Life in some rural communities was little changed since the Renaissance, with traditions that might have stretched back to the middle ages. Disease was rampant. Cholera hadn’t yet reached Europe but by 1817 the first great pandemic would break out in India. Other great killers like Tuberculosis, Small Pox, Typhus and Dysentery ravaged Europe but medical science was still exceptionally primitive. Death could strike quickly and the Reaper extracted a huge toll. To live in 1815 was to live in an age which was at its heart little advanced from the middle ages. Superstition was still rampant and Europe was not as far ahead in terms of technology from many of its neighbours. Across Europe the accepted form of government was the hereditary monarchy. The only real exception was revolutionary France, which challenged the old order.
By the end of the Victorian Age, Western Nations had been utterly transformed. Public health measures, germ theory, mass vaccinations, plumbing, rubber, electricity and refrigeration fundamentally changed the world. Death rates dropped and populations had vastly swollen. In 1800 a fifth of the worlds population lived in Europe. By 1914 it was a third. These staggering demographic pressures would shape the Victorian age, forcing mass migrations. When combined with increased technological development and production, Imperial expansionism became almost inevitable. An Englishman or woman from 1815 might have an easier time understanding Renaissance England than he or she would of understanding the world and technologies of 1915.
Unlike today, the world of 1815 did not have a single hyper power. Instead there were a number of great powers. Great power status was important. It not only conferred prestige on a nation, but also increased the influence they could exert over other nations during treaty negotiations and trade. Great power status was also considered a mark of civilisation. Austria, Russia, Spain and Prussia were all considered great powers in 1815 but only Britain and France could claim to be international powers as well. The others were essentially regional powers, except the declining Spanish Empire. The Victorians would go on to make Britain the first truly global super power. Not until the rise of the United States in the early C20th was Britain’s international superpower status really challenged.
I’m going to give us a run through Europe as it stood in 1815 in the run up to Waterloo. I won’t go into depth on the background of each nation. It is just important that I give you an idea of how the main powers of Europe stood. Please remember that nation states were not the centralised powerhouses they would become in the C20th. Nationalism was on the rise but the world view of most of the population would be local, and rulers still claimed territory by hereditary right or marriage or treaty rather than in terms of strictly delineated ground on a map.
I’m not going to deal with the smaller nations of Europe in 1815. Firstly it is too much to cover in a summary, and secondly territories, duchies, vassal states, confederacies and principalities would shift about endlessly. Also I’m not going to do a summary of the world outside Europe. We will deal with the United States, Canada, Australia, China, India and many others during the podcast and I think that these countries will be better dealt with in depth later.
Our first great power, Spain, was one of the oldest. The high water mark of her empire had long passed, but she remained a powerful, proud nation. Spain is on the south west of Europe with Atlantic and Mediterranean seaboards. She was agriculturally rich, but frequently disorganised and corrupt with entrenched nobility who were ridiculously conservative even by the standards of the 19th Century. Despite her geographical riches, wealth in Spanish society was colossally unequally distributed. The bulk of the population were uneducated and the country had been ravaged by years of war during the French invasion and the British retreat then counter invasion. Her climate was often harsh and feeding campaigning armies in the country was difficult.
Spain had also suffered a number of naval defeats at the hands of the British, notably at Trafalgar. Their grip on their colonial empire was shaky to say the least. The country as a whole didn’t court modernisation or innovation, leaving them progressively weaker against the rapidly industrialising northern European nations.
Austria was Frances principle enemy of the Napoleonic wars along with Britain. It is probably better not to think of Austria as a nation like France or Britain. It was more a collection of political entities that came under the sway of the Hapsburg dynasty. The Austrian Empire was officially created in 1804 out of the personal holdings of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II as a result of defeats against the French, but obviously including the core Austrian territory itself, along with Bavaria. It was held together mainly by loyalty to the Hapsburg kings and Roman Catholicism. The ideals of the French Revolution were in many ways a direct strike against the threads that held the Austria and the Holy Roman Empire together. Its shape would be largely determined by one of the great figures of the period 1815-1848 Clement Lothar von Metternich-Winneburg-Beilstein fortunately better known to history as just Metternich, which is what I’ll be call him from here onwards. In 1815 Austria was still at the height of its power with territories in Italy, Poland and the Balkans. It had suffered serious and sustained defeats at the hands of Napoleon but thanks to Metternich would emerge into the post Napoleonic world even stronger and larger after the 2nd Congress of Paris. It was a conservative, reactionary entity that would come into conflict with emerging German and Italy. We will re-visit Austria and the Habsburgs more than once during the podcast as undergoes revolutions and wars against Prussia, setting the stage for the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Russia particularly craved international esteem. She was constantly torn between much needed internal reform, and lurches to autocracy. Until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, Russia’s principle enemy was the Ottoman empire. Russia became a key part of the coalitions against France, and was instrumental in the campaigns against Napoleon in 1813-1814. Russia’s claim to great power status was fragile throughout the Victorian age. Her self confidence was sometimes brittle and she remained only superficially modern. After Napoleon’s defeat (come on, this really can’t be a spoiler), the other Western powers pulled well away from Russia in terms of industrial power, economic performance and social liberalism. The failure to introduce liberal forms of government made Russian’s claim to Great Power status precarious in the eyes of the rest of Europe. Military power alone was not enough to confer such status.
The great military power of the age was supposed to be Prussia. Before we start, can we please please get the idea that Prussia and German are the same thing out of our heads. Prussian and German unification will come about and Bismarck will use his immense genius to reshape them into a unified and coherent identity but they weren’t the same. Also there seems to be a tendency in modern culture to read Nazi influences and designs into early Prussia and Germany. Please don’t do it. Seriously, Nazi German borrowed images, themes and music from their past like magpies. The Prussians of 1815 were much of a creation of the Federick Kings and the infamous Frederick the Great. So successful were Frederick the Great’s military achievements that in the early days of the French revolution it was assumed that the Prussian army would sweep into France and stamp it out for good. Napoleon shocked the world by his constant humbling of Austria and Prussia. Ironically Prussia was often at war with Austria but after the crushing defeat it suffered against Napoleon & Marshal Davout at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806
The main event of 1815 as far as anglo centric history is concerned was Waterloo. That great British legend, of the Iron Duke and the stiff upper lips beating the evil military pint sized tinpot dictator Napoleon. The charge of the Greys, the Squares standing firm, and the unflappable Wellington yelling “up guards and at em”
The reality is very different from the legend and the Victorians had a very large part in shaping this legend. Their attitude to it, and the art work they produced has created a lasting and deeply misleading understanding of Waterloo even to this day.
I hope you’ll join me next week as we explore more about the Waterloo campaign and begin separating the facts from the legend.
Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoy. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com, follow me on twitter @ageofvictoria, visit the website at www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com. The show also has a facebook page and group. Just search for Age of Victoria. Don’t forget to leave a review on Apple Podcasts, it takes less time than making a coffee. If you want to support the show on patreon, just click here or you can go to Patreon and search for age of victoria podcast or my name.